Social media is no doubt a powerful force. But in what ways? How does this power manifest itself? Some people, perhaps confused by the word "media," seem to think it's a replacement for traditional media outlets -- particularly newspapers -- despite there being zero evidence that this is taking place.
But the Todd Akin thing shows, yet again, where social media's real power lies when it comes to matters of public concern: in mob action. I don't mean that in a bad way. As I have argued before, when somebody does or says something truly awful, social media enables a critical mass of public disgust to be reached. It happened with SOPA, it happened when the Komen Foundation yanked funding for breast-cancer research from Planned Parenthood for political reasons, and it's happened again with Akin's insane assertions about rape and abortion.
A few years ago, the comments might have gotten a fair bit of attention, but I doubt the GOP would have backed away from Akin as it has here. After all, what he said has been said plenty of times before to relatively little notice.
So far, at least, the only instances where this has worked is when the issue is large enough, and important enough, to animate a huge number of people. And when those people are in the right. Given the overwhelming tides of jackassery one sees on the Internet every day from the general public, especially in comments sections and on social-media sites, it's easy to just write off the whole thing. But on the rare occasions that meet the above criteria, social media really does live up to its hype -- it can change the world.
So, why do so many people insist that social media's real power lies in this notion that it's taking the place of newspapers?
Every so often, something happens where there are people on the ground with access to Twitter or Facebook, and they relay their accounts to the world. And this is great. But that doesn't mean it's okay for professional journalism to lose its economic support because Twitter and Facebook are somehow making up the difference.
One reliable exponent of this theory is GigaOM's Mathew Ingram, who is always looking under rocks for evidence that the "mainstream media" is either dead or clueless and, more to the point, that's okay ... because of Facebook and Twitter. In his latest version of his perennial "people sometimes tweet eyewitness accounts of things, so we don't need newspapers anymore" argument, he yet again cites the Arab Spring, and how during those uprisings, people on the ground tweeted what was happening.
Thus, Ingram says in a weird bit of circular logic, instead of "relying only on mainstream journalists to tell us what is going on in places like Egypt during the Arab Spring, we have been able to see and hear about those events directly from people who are experiencing them -- thanks to the efforts of pioneering journalists such as National Public Radio's Andy Carvin, and his use of Twitter as a crowdsourced newsroom."
Carvin, a mainstream journalist, is doing some great stuff on Twitter. But he's still a reporter gathering information, filtering it, and presenting it to the world. As usual, Ingram is mixing up the medium (meaning, the platform) with the message. He and like-minded pundits actually use phrases like "Twitter reported that ..." Twitter, of course, reports nothing. People use Twitter to report (or, much more often, link to) information.
Further extolling the supposed benefits of social media as a way to remove the "filter" of mainstream media, Ingram argues that thanks to blogging, we got the rise of "new media powerhouses" such as ... the Huffington Post. I'm not sure what that's supposed to prove in terms of the power of social media and blogging. Circular logic again. HuffPo is really just another mainstream media outlet. That it initially published mainly sub-literate blog posts from unpaid contributors doesn't change this.
Most astonishingly, Ingram argues that, thanks to the removal of the media "filter," people like Mark Cuban can "get their message out directly," and people like Rupert Murdoch can "tell their side of the story."
Well, great. Because really, it's so unfair of the mainstream media to apply "filters" that muddy up the messages of truth-screamers like Mark Cuban and Rupert Murdoch -- men of conscience who would never say anything out of pure self-interest. Power to the people!
What all these arguments always leave out is that, as much as social media gives a "voice" to everyone with an Internet connection -- for both good and ill -- it does nothing to make up for what is lost by the economic disintegration of professional news media, particularly local and regional newspapers. Even if the use of social media by witnesses to and participants in Middle Eastern revolutions somehow made up for a lack of professional journalists covering it (it didn't), that doesn't make the death of newspapers okay.
In the comments under his post, Ingram declared that "in the case of news events where someone directly involved is posting things to Twitter or their Facebook or blog, I would argue that's as unfiltered as you can get."
Which is fine, although such "filtering" often (at least, ideally) provides needed context, corrects statements that aren't factual, and clarifies what might be the selfish interests of people speaking on an issue. Do we really want a world where Rupert Murdoch has the final word on Rupert Murdoch's activities, to be countered, or supported, only by Internet commenters who might not know what they're talking about?
But even beyond all that, how much of the news that most people care about, or at least that is most important -- local schools, cops and courts, city government, state government, local and regional business -- is ever delivered via Twitter and Facebook? How many tweets and Facebook postings comprise original, investigative watchdog reporting, especially of local power structures? I would estimate zero.
Few of these digital triumphalist types ever even acknowledge that coverage of these crucial areas is really what is being lost as newspapers disintegrate. It's great that eyewitnesses can tweet from the Arab Spring and from fires and whatnot. But it's irrelevant to the discussion of what is being lost as newspapers slowly disappear.
And yet, we can all be glad for social media's real power -- to disseminate
information to far more people, and to aggregate their approval or
disgust. Maybe it will get even better at this. Maybe the Akin affair is
an indication that people are starting to realize what has gone wrong
with one of our two great political parties, and will stand up with one
voice and say: enough.