Why do we bother with social media?

Written by Paulina Goodwin, @shvetsova, Digital Content Manager and lead on our international social media work


Just as I finished my blog about the future of our social media work I learnt of the Chelsea Manning story on Twitter. Trending within minutes, most tweets repeated the same information, while some corrected misuses of pronouns. The trolls were coming out too. Twitter is a wonderful vehicle for our belief in freedom of expression and yet when it comes to breaking news rumour, speculation, misinformation and expressions of hatred divert our desire to know and understand.

Like everyone else (speculative, sorry) I shall be following the Manning story, which promises to be a media and political circus. Whether the mass conversation on social networks gets salacious, offensive or eye-opening and inspiring is yet to be seen, but the likelihood of social opinion affecting the news agenda on this issue is high.

If you work in anything to do with social, regardless of where you are in the world, my guess is we share similar habits. All of your news comes from social. You follow brands that you don’t even like out of sheer fascination with their brilliance in the social space. You obsessively search for the latest content and technology innovation, success story, freaky ‘why did that even go viral’ story. You build relationships with peers online before you meet them in life. You once catapulted yourself over a moving car whilst out for a run because you were distracted by Twitter. But on top of all this you have an innate curiosity with the true impact of social on our minds and relationships.

Twitter is full of trolls and Facebook is full of selfies

Aside from trolls, spammers and forgers social media is full of potential connections, friends and kindred-spirits. However, concerns from social scientists have explored the potentially negative effects of social media; in the eroding of human interaction only to replace it with personal promotion and self-editing, an argument beautifully captured in Shimi Cohen’s video The Innovation of Loneliness.

Fake evidence of human rights violations, such as abuses in Syria, is tactically injected into social networks to skew or enforce certain views. The recent Anglo-American debates about Twitter’s culpability in the growing number of sexual harassment cases, threats and general trolling further highlight the complex nature of these spaces. Then there’s the debate around clicktivism is general – passive shopping experiences for feel good solutions to global problems. Such a space seems to be the antithesis of Amnesty, the world’s first social network, which sought to unite people against injustice back in 1961.

People build technology, technology doesn’t build people

OK so social scientists and psychologist definitely know more than me about the human brain, but I don’t agree that detachment and manipulation is our only fate. Just as yesterday’s #AmnestyICM session discussed the importance of digital freedoms in light of Snowdon and Manning, we have choices in how we use and develop technology that fundamentally changes the structure of our society.

In 2010 I saw a brilliant talk by Jeremy Rifkin (below) about the evolution of empathy and how it’s shaped our relationships. Rifkin posed that empathy has developed throughout history from blood ties, on to groups and nation states – and that technology can be an aid in creating a global culture of empathy between us all. This still resonates with me, especially as it was before the Arab Spring and recent security leaks. Days like today remind me of Rifkin’s ideas because I always feel the same hope – that we shall see empathy prevail across the biggest clan of people in the world, social media users.

We can’t be all things to all people

This fast-changing, growing and noisy environment needs to be navigated much the same as the ‘real’ world. While Amnesty may not be in the business of breaking news, at least in the short term, our world-class researchers can verify emerging social media content as evidence of human rights abuse, not only to gauge the reality of what is appearing online but to better understand the situation in which they are often embedded in on the ground. We can support partners in helping this information stand up legally; organizations like Witness are already operating in this field.

Amnesty needs to find existing vibrant communities, of which there are so many. As we disperse our London headquarters to locations in the Global South and East to be closer to our substantive human rights work social media presents similar opportunities – when entering new territories we shouldn’t automatically set up new ‘Amnesty’ spaces and channels, we need to listen and respond to existing conversations. If anything, we may be lucky enough to join or strengthen some of these incredible networks.

Amnesty letter-writing has helped amplify voices for over 50 years, much of its power being that it is individuals and not a faceless organization that is calling powers to account. Rather than trying to provide every variable of a ‘corporate’ channel to meet the public thirst for information we have to work behind the scenes, supporting and strengthening our staff and other individuals who risk their lives for human rights.

On days like today I think the reason Amnesty bothers with social media is because while it will never be a utopia amongst the noise, conflict and self-indulgence is the most vibrant community in the world. People who believe in our empathic nature.

RSA Animate – The Empathic Civilisation

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One Response to Why do we bother with social media?

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