The good, bad and ugly of social media
Targeted: Yumi Stynes. Photo: Simon Schluter
SOCIAL media is the greatest agent of democracy since, well, democracy.
That, at any rate, has been the popular perception since at least 2008, when protesters in Iran circumvented official media blackouts by using Twitter and Facebook to organise within the country and to let those outside the country know what was going on. In that heady, if ultimately fleeting, moment, the age of vivalarevolucion.com was born.
In the drawn-out and quite possibly false dawn of the Arab Spring that has followed, social media has continued to play a significant role. And in the past week, the inconceivably rapid spread of the Kony 2012 video has again drawn attention to the medium's transformative power.
By lunchtime yesterday, three days after it was posted, more than 40 million people had viewed the powerful 30-minute slice of agitprop on YouTube. Many thousands - perhaps millions - of those who watched have been moved to contribute their small mouse click for change, by sharing the movie on their Facebook pages, by posting about it on Twitter, by buying the posters that will on the night of April 20 be plastered on walls around the world.
As the narrator, Jason Russell, puts it in the movie: ''The technology that has brought our world together is allowing us to respond to the problems of our friends. We are not just studying human history, we are shaping it.''
Thanks to Twitter, Facebook, Blogger, Tumblr and the rest, everyone with a mobile phone or internet connection now has a voice. And thanks to the amplifying effect of social media, those voices can be heard around the world. Social media is, in this view, the megaphone of a movement of, by and for the people, wherever they may be.
But in the midst of all the excitement it's worth remembering this: while a megaphone makes you louder, it doesn't make you smarter. And it certainly doesn't make you any more civil.
Look no further than the home-grown campaign of hate directed towards TV presenter Yumi Stynes since February 28. That was the day she and her co-host on Ten's morning chat show The Circle dived into a pool of innuendo, looking for cheap laughs but resurfacing only to a torrent of abuse, much of it sexist (Stynes was the primary recipient) and racist (her part-Japanese parentage was a lightning rod for the haters).
Never mind the Arab Spring, Australia has just had its own Redneck Autumn.
And that's the thing about social media as an agent of change: it is a value-neutral platform. The racist hater has exactly the same access to the megaphone as the most reasonable humanitarian. In the resulting cacophony, it is the quiet, more considered voice that gets drowned out first.
The Stynes incident has echoes of its own, in the Kyle Sandilands fracas late last year. Both involved thoughtless comments in a mass media platform, both provoked outraged responses in social media, and both inspired advertisers and sponsors to distance themselves from the offending program. But the differences are just as important.
On November 23, 2011, Sandilands used his radio show on Sydney's 2Day FM to attack a News Ltd journalist who had been critical of his latest foray into television. His attack was sustained, personal and vicious. He referred to the journalist, Alison Stephenson, as ''some fat slag''. He called her ''a piece of shit'', a ''little troll'' and ''a bullshit artist''. He criticised her ''small titties''. He said she should be sacked. He threatened to hunt her down.
The response on social media was swift, condemnatory and impossible for advertisers to ignore. The ''sack vile Kyle'' petition on campaign site change.org garnered almost 35,000 signatures of support. Organisers of that campaign claim that to date more than 130 advertisers and sponsors have cancelled their involvement with the program (although, for what it's worth, Sandilands yesterday told AdNews that ''advertisers are coming back already''). On December 9 - more than two weeks after his attack - Sandilands issued a begrudging apology.
Through social media, a small victory against misogyny and intimidation had been won.
Now, let's consider the Yumi Stynes case.
On February 28, 2012, Stynes used her TV show to jokingly cast aspersions upon the intellect of Australia's latest Victoria Cross recipient, Corporal Ben Roberts-Smith. Showing a beefcake photo of him in a swimming pool, she said he looked like he was ''going to dive down to the bottom of the pool to see if his brain is there''.
Co-host George Negus then chipped in, wondering of Roberts-Smith, who had fathered two children with his wife through IVF, if ''that sort of bloke … what if they're not up to it in the sack?''
Off-camera, Stynes said: ''Are you intimating, George Negus, that he could be a dud root?''
It was poorly judged and thoughtlessly cruel, and the response on social media was swift, condemnatory and impossible for advertisers to ignore.
The next day, both Stynes and Negus called Roberts-Smith to apologise, and he graciously accepted. (Their public apologies, however, looked almost as begrudging as Sandilands' had been.) Ten apologised. The producers of The Circle apologised.
Still, the advertisers rushed for the exit, motivated perhaps as much by the new program's disappointing ratings as by moral outrage. Presumably any who return will do so at a more favourable rate than the deal they struck initially.
Meanwhile, the campaign on social media turned ugly. While Negus got off more or less scot-free, Twitter was saturated with Stynes-related hashtags that in any other sphere would surely constitute incitement to hatred or violence. Her entry on Wikipedia was repeatedly defaced. Death threats were reportedly made against both her and her children. Through social media, a campaign of misogyny and intimidation was being waged.
Now, the world has woken up to the horrors of Joseph Kony and his Lord's Resistance Army in central Africa. Yes - as the sceptics have argued in the inevitable backlash - it's 25 years late, and, no, he's not the force he once was and, yes, he no longer has much of a presence in Uganda. But still, if he is brought to justice as Invisible Children, the advocacy group behind Kony 2012, intends, it will be a victory worth savouring, and a massive demonstration of the power of social media to drive change.
That millions of people have been moved by the plight of the 30,000 Ugandan children abducted for use as child soldiers is undeniably a good thing. But in the backlash and backlash-against-the-backlash that has followed there is a warning. The power of social media is far greater than any single message. And it will be used for misinformation as well as information, for ill as well as good.
Karl Quinn is on Twitter: @karlkwin