If Boardwalk Empire’s Arnold Rothstein can state with conviction that he lives in the age of information in 1920s New York, then one wonders how he would characterize the 21st century. It is an epoch distinguished by media diffusion and the prevalence of social media, enabling rapid access to news and the equally rapid sharing of interesting stories between friends who happen to be Facebook friends or mutual followers on Twitter.
While the benefits of social media are often touted, including its importance to grassroots organizing with such diverse movements as the Arab Spring and Occupy Wall Street, there is a dark side to social media as well, particularly when used to share stories or create movements responsive to various issues. Indeed, the viral sensationalizing of certain stories, such as Ugandan warlord Joseph Kony’s actions, the Casey Anthony case, and the Trayvon Martin killing foster both superficial understanding of the substantive issues and a guilty-until-proven-innocent mentality.
Kony 2012 is the most salient application to the first element of social media’s dark side. Although Invisible Children’s goals are noble, the Kony 2012 campaign has generated significant criticism, including questions pertaining to Invisible Children’s presentation of facts and depiction of Kony. The powerful response to Kony 2012, particularly among young American students, is reflective of what Teju Cole calls the white savior industrial complex: the need to intervene not out of pure altruism but because wealthy white Westerners, driven by a subconscious superiority to disadvantaged Africans, desire to make a difference.
Social media also fosters a guilty-until-proven-innocent approach to our justice system. Two of the most recent high profile stories, the trial of Casey Anthony for the murder of her daughter, Caylee, and the death of Trayvon Martin at the hands of George Zimmerman, feature murdered infants or children allegedly at the hands of Anthony and Zimmerman. The interest generated in these and similar stories through social media contributes to viewing the accused as immediately guilty, particularly when children are involved, which of course they are in the Anthony/Zimmerman cases. Disgust with the accused is so profound that faith in the justice system effectively disappears and decisions not popular with the public at large are decried as corrupt or foolish. In the aftermath of the Anthony trial, one Oklahoma woman even took the law into her own hands and ran her car into Anthony’s vehicle. – the only problem was the other driver only looked like Anthony and was, in fact, a different person.
There is no doubt social media is powerful. It has the potential for great good, but when used to sensationalize stories and marginalize the complexity of salient issues, tools like Facebook and Twitter become destructive. Like any speech, social media must be approached and implemented with sensitivity and understanding or we all run the risk of falling to social media’s dark side.