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Social media and social ruin

“It is better to keep your mouth shut and be thought stupid, than to open it and remove all doubt.” – Anonymous

A few years back, Time magazine put a mirror finish on its front cover and named ‘You!’ its ‘Person of the Year’. YouTube, Facebook, MySpace and other social media were in their infancy, but Time’s editors recognized that enabling anyone and everyone to access a worldwide audience for homespun videos, personal wisdom, rants, and random thoughts would have profound social effects.

What they did not foresee was new media’s potential for social destruction.

With the click of a button, anyone can ‘share’ the most astounding misinformation, send mean-spirited comments winging around the globe and join in a spree of bullying. Putting a stop to the rants, once started, is almost impossible. Rational and well-reasoned comments are quickly buried under an avalanche of later posts, as Mayor Wayne Rowe discovered recently.

Earlier in June, the Town of Gibsons conducted deep maintenance on the roads at five corners (the confluence of Gower Point, Gibsons Way, Marine Drive, School Road and Molly’s Lane). This prompted a query on a Facebook community page asking “Does anyone know the reason Town of Gibsons decided to replace this section?”

This posting prompted a flurry of indignant sub-postings moaning that streets like Pratt Road, or Gower Point at Clark (both of which lie outside the Town boundaries) are more in need of repair, so why didn’t the Town take action there? Some Facebook posters indicated that this work was unnecessary – in their humble opinion – or just “graft.”

Mayor Wayne Rowe entered the forum, succinctly answering the original query and clarifying the need for the work. He invited Facebook posters to contact the Town’s engineer, Dave Newman, for a fuller explanation and apologized for the inconvenience. Later postings quickly shoved this reasoned response up into the ‘earlier comments’ section. Had Mayor Rowe not acted proactively to provide a general explanation to residents in a letter to the editor, the final word on the subject might have been provided by an anonymous Facebook ranter.

Pre-Facebook, contacting the Town Hall for direct information about roadworks would have been a resident’s first, and most obvious, action. Now, for a resident sitting behind a computer screen, the first and most obvious action is to post a question in a Facebook forum and expect other residents, sitting behind their own computer screens, to provide accurate and knowledgeable information. Except that in Facebook, the most recent (and potentially, most ignorant) posting carries the heaviest weight. If the most recent posting is dead wrong, or mean-spirited, or even defamatory it is still right out there for the world to see while any earlier remark disappears into the hidden world of ‘earlier posts’.

Social media seems to encourage exchanges where mindless speculation replaces the actual seeking out of information. Facebook in particular seems to encourage people to hold forth at length – opening mouths, per the above-quoted adage, to remove all doubt as to their ignorance.

To be fair, social media cannot be equalled in dispersing on-the-spot information about disasters, social events or lost dogs. But while mainstream media relies on knowledgeable staff to filter stories for accuracy, social media relies on each poster’s judgement to ensure comments are, accurate and unbiased. In the Facebook universe, common sense – or any sense at all – is becoming a scarce commodity.

Heather Jeal, Contributing Writer

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