I recently read a book on the power of new technology and the Internet and how it can be harnessed to accomplish good on a scale never before imagined.
In his book “Cognitive Surplus,” author Clay Shirky describes several far-reaching events in which unlikely individuals banned together to change society for the better. It was inspiring to read about all the good that can be accomplished through the new tools of social media, such as Facebook and Twitter.
For example, over 15,000 individuals connected through a Facebook page and helped overturn a radical religious group that had been beating up women in India who did not live by the radical group’s tenets. (pages 169-171) The 15,000 strong were no match for this radical group.
Shirky also talks about “people you don’t know, making your life better for free.” (page 114) He writes about free programming for software projects that allow others to benefit at no cost. Imagine that, people are spending their own time and energy creating easy-to-use programs for the Internet, and then allowing anyone to use and/or modify it for free.
The one thing Shirky does not discuss in his book is the flip side of social media: people using it for something not so good.
This summer there has been a surge of bad created by the very social media that has done so much good. I first heard about it on TV news and read about it in a newspaper. (Yes, I still read a real paper.) Perhaps you heard, too. Groups of (mostly) young people using Facebook and Twitter to organize “flash mobs” to rob and attack bystanders.
The police in Philadelphia have instituted a curfew for those 18 and under, and the FBI are tracking criminal use of social media. The police in New York City are trying to reach kids through Facebook and Twitter as a preventative measure.
One question I have is, since most of those participating in these “flash mobs of bad” are under 18, where are their parents? I’d heard that some as young as 11 have been involved. How did they get these devices to tweet and text in the first place? If a parent gives their child a gun, and the child uses the gun for bad, then the parent is held responsible. Does this hold true for a parent who gives a child a technical tool (cellphone), pays for the subscription with texting and Internet apps, and the child uses this tool for bad?
There are discussions about First Amendment rights to use social media, as long as it is not overtly criminal. Some suggest government regulation. Well, being from what used to be called a “free and open press,” I don’t agree with governmental regulation of free speech. Once regulation gets in the picture, who knows where it’ll lead.
Even without the new social media tools, people have been using words on parchment and paper to do both good and bad for centuries. Are we surprised that people now use words on social media for both good and bad? It’s not the words they’re using that cause harm, it’s their actions. The solution, as I see it, is holding individuals (and the parents of the underaged) responsible for their actions.
It’s hard to say if this “flash mob attack” mentality is just a passing phase or a very real threatening trend. It is, however, unsettling, especially for the victims.
I don’t know how the authorities will figure this one out. And because I’m not a sociologist and don’t know much about analyzing criminal behavior or trying to stop it in the young, I don’t have the answers. I can only hope that there continues to be more individuals who use social media for good than for bad.