The Jones affair, and an outbreak of obscenities after Julia Gillard's responses in an education forum on Facebook yesterday raise big questions about the power of social media. Unfortunately, in an age when everyone wants black and white responses, there are no easy answers.

"The Parrot" as they call shock jock Alan Jones, is squawking at the treatment he's received after his appalling comment that the PM's father died of shame because of her lying. It's hard to take his complains of being bullied seriously. As Kevin Rudd said yesterday, he's getting back a bit of what he's shovelled out for decades.

In fact, it's not Jones who's been bullied. But some of his advertisers feel they have been.

Dozens of advertisers and sponsors sniffed the wind of public opinion and withdrew from the program or the station as the social media campaign built up after Jones' remark was revealed.

All strength to their arms. But there is a fine line — between firms responding to public opinion, and being intimidated by a campaign targeted at them, especially when it bombards them individually. A number of those remaining — before Macquarie Radio stopped all advertising on the program — were small enterprises. Their vulnerability to damage from a tough campaign is proportionately greater than that of larger companies.

By giving ordinary people a voice, social media is empowering voters and consumers. This is obviously a good thing, whether it is to enables them to have more political say or get better service from companies.

But the medium also has potential to bring out the worst as well as the best.

While Jones' enemies, especially on the left, are glad to see him get his comeuppance, they should also remember that in other circumstances some of his nastier allies on the right could also mobilise support to hunt their targets.

Much of the misogynist denigration of Julia Gillard has been coming though social media. Who would expect a session on education would lead to the grossest personal remarks that would never find their way into a newspaper? In this case, surely that should have been properly moderated by the PM's office.

Mounting concern about trolls, and Ipsos Mackay research finding that people worry about the culture of "narcissism and self-absorption" promoted by Facebook are other reminders that social media can sit anywhere between the ideals of Athenian democracy and the depths of mob tyranny.

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