Social media is humanising – it’s how we use it that can dehumanise

Discussions of what is and isn’t acceptable for publishing on social media (specifically Twitter and YouTube in current debates) are occupying much of my timeline.

Articles written around the role social media played in disseminating images and messages following journalist James Foley‘s murder will abound and I wasn’t intending to add to the noise, but then a couple of things happened: First, Mathew Ingram’s tweeted question made me consider my personal view, and where that view fitted in the expanding horizon of content publishing and distribution.

Most respondents indicated these platforms shouldn’t remove it (Mathew’s conclusions from the debate are here). I suspect our views are actually moot; removing such content from the internet is an exercise in futility – these images aren’t expunged, they simply slide down through the strata of the web to darker layers, or become downloaded shared content, and so viewers gain an extra frisson and the pedlars weird exclusivity-linked kudos.

When Ken Bigley was beheaded in 2004, the videos were removed by YouTube but you could buy a DVD  of the killing – should your tastes run that way – at a Liverpool street market. So YouTube did revoke publication rights but a secondary distribution market had already sprung up.  Ten years on, the options for alternative online distribution platforms are far greater, and harder to control.

The ability to view something isn’t really the same as wanting to view it. I know I could find and footage of James Foley kneeling and dying alone in the desert but I don’t intend to seek it out. I haven’t clicked any links that looked likely to lead to it, and although I believe there were gifs they weren’t in my Twitter feed or in my hashtag columns. Twitter is considering removing the images in deference to his family’s wishes, although I imagine that won’t stop them being searchable and shareable elsewhere.

The second thing that happened was a world away from the horrors of a young man’s murder, although it was a photo someone retweeted into my timeline. It was utterly innocuous but made me consider how censorship via the removal of content had influenced me.  It was a photo of Gerry Adams and a goat.

When I was a child, Gerry Adams was judged to be allied with a cause so dangerous UK TV viewers and radio listeners could not even hear his own voice being broadcast, thanks to a government ban. Instead, an actor spoke his words. Today he publishes selfies and uses myriad broadcast and distribution channels (not least an autobiography). The internet would never suffer such a restriction to hold  now and, that is a positive development.

Media companies make daily decisions around in-house and external codes of ethics and conduct, not to mention legal restraints and what the audience reaction might be. Twitter and YouTube are platforms that host content; they don’t create, own and distribute that content, users self-publish. Journalists rail at Google when it removes articles in accordance with the Right To be Forgotten ruling but I can see parallels with YouTube withdrawing a user’s content that is being re-published and distributed across myriad networks.

Taking away someone’s actual voice is a powerful insinuation that we need protection from them, and it made a powerful impression on me as a child. Skip forward a few decades and the world is quite a different place –  I know Adams doesn’t speak with Received Pronunciation, for a start, and he is considered the architect of the Peace Process. But until today I had never thought of him as a man likely to take a selfie with a goat.  Social media is actually very humanising; it’s how we use it that can dehumanise.

Later… 

The Guardian’s James Ball sums it up better than me: “Before clicking, serious self-examination is required: why do you want to see this? Do you need to see it to understand something important? Still deeper self-examination should certainly be engaged before even contemplating sharing such material.” I recommennd reading his article in full

 

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About Alison Gow

I'm a journalist, particularly interested in story-telling, networks and digital innovation.
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