By Nadia Zaifulizan
People share information on social media because they want to share what they feel is valuable information. They also like expressing their support on the issues that they feel strongly about, and to be able to interact and feel a sense of fulfillment while building relationships with others.(1) In a nutshell, social media is a medium where they learn what they wish to know, share what they wish others to know, and fulfill their needs of being human. It is no longer just a tool and is intrinsically embedded in their lives, (and sometimes livelihoods for others).
Social Media in Motion
In countries like the United States, social media is involved in a large part of the users daily life activities and transactions. It is also increasingly utilized as a way to fight crime in their locality. After identifying elusive possible suspects from camera surveillance, or eye-witness reports, a simple notice by the police on social media can easily trigger widespread information dissemination, more information of case leads, and subsequent actions by the people to contribute in crime-fighting.(2),(3) But nationwide, crime management is not always as simple as a public service notification on a Facebook page to keep people safe and informed. In some instances, the respective police department engages in social media monitoring to “listen in” on social media activities of the masses for the alleged purpose of crime-prevention. In the effort to anticipate harmful, security-breach events, the police are more inclined towards using social media mining to scan social platforms for keywords that are believed to indicate danger.(4)
Although crime-prevention was initially its purpose, social media mining also enables data on public sentiment and intelligence data to be gathered for other non crime-fighting purposes, without prior knowledge or consent of the users. At this point, such data surveillance activities were a sore point of contention among data privacy advocates and law enforcement entities. Users view social media as their own personal space of interaction and expression, and loathe the idea of these data being under surveillance.
On the other side of the world like Sri Lanka, social media is an important platform for news dissemination, due to the difficulties faced by the traditional media. The country’s traditional press and media freedom is extensively hindered by restrictions in reporting and news dissemination, posing a challenge for many journalists to report freely and safely without risking penalty, imprisonment, or worse, death.(5),(6) Social media became the platform where discourse on current affairs and news sharing were able to take place across communities. It even became the platform that empowered a social movement for justice, when an unconstitutional decision by the ruling government triggered a widespread protest between the citizens and the supporters of the ruling government’s decision. Weeks after the protest between the two sides became physical and was broadcasted on YouTube, the decision was eventually reversed.(7) Social media’s role is significant in informing and rallying mass citizens for the protest. The people who lost the ability to receive proper news and rightful information from the media, and those who lost some of their job functions as agents of information, were able to turn to social media to fill in the gaps, throughout these trials and tribulations.
Unsurprisingly, in the updates following the recent bombing attack of Sri Lanka on Easter Sunday which left 321 people killed and many injured,(8) the Sri Lankan government imposed a period of social media ban to allegedly curb the false dissemination of information with regard to the bombings. At the time, responses were varied. Some viewed the move as a positive response to curb Facebook’s influence, while others view that a social media shutdown could trigger public distress in the current situation, in a country hit by a tragedy and whose citizens are dependent on social media for news, information, as well as topics discourse.(9),(10) Despite the weight of social media’s importance in a country struggling for freedom of the press like Sri Lanka, many questions still remain on the longevity of social media’s accessibility for the people.
Economic, Social, and Security Implications
Since attracting and gaining attention of users are central to the rise of social media, the impact from social media is inevitably a double-edged sword. Many businesses flourished after the rise of social media, as businesses and services become more accessible to the masses regardless of existing borders. Numerous instances have shown that many consumers make buying decisions based on what they see on social media, especially with the use of influencers(11) in this “attention economy”. Consumers are also more likely to recommend a brand to others based on good social media service experience.(12) Social media not only functions as a platform for communication, but also as a business marketer, as well as an enabler for political, social, and ideological dissemination. For many users, its use and benefits are diverse and abundant, and it is easily accessible.
However, as much as social media played a vital role in empowering many social projects and economic growth, it also represented a role in the adverse tragedies that has happened in the past few decades. Tragedies such as the Christchurch shooting that killed more than 50 people were live-streamed on social media. Such violations on humanity were uncontrollable, and unfortunately detected much too late.
Even through the hurdles of regulating something as immense and complex as social media, the basic elements required are clear: protection of privacy, upholding transparency,(13) management of abuse, and maintaining users’ safety and security. Although at the end of the day, the responsibility for each consumption and utilization of contents are our own,(14) opening up the agenda discourse towards social media regulation is an important beginning for the safe future of our social commodity and engagements.