Is social media a threat, or a menace? That seems to be the question many are asking today. Where just a few years ago, companies like Facebook or Google were seen as white knights of progress, now there seems to be a lot more skepticismabout their effects and their intentions.
I saw this firsthand last week when I spoke at a conference on free speech and social media at Stanford Law School, where I talked about my new book, "The Social Media Upheaval." As I discuss in my book, the rise of social media has brought about a lot of change, and much of it isn’t appreciated.
In the book, I note that although our society generally supports free speech quite strongly, we do regulate speech that is too dangerous — like incitement to riot — or speech that is false and defamatory, and we often regulate things that are addictive, or invasions of privacy. Social media tends to have all of those characteristics to varying degrees. Some of that is because of how it is structured.
In the days of the old blogosphere, when people expressed views on their own personal blogs, scattered across many different servers and platforms, other blogs might pick them up. But each time that happened, it took a conscious decision, and at least some degree of thought, to compose and publish a blog post, and bloggers who published links to stories or posts found elsewhere often encouraged readers to “read the whole thing.” On social media, a “share” or “retweet” takes but a second, and research indicates that most people never read anything but the headline before sharing. This facilitates the rapid spread of outrage mobs, conspiracy theories and hysteria.
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