Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Social media and criticism

Photo from politicspa.com 
It's election day in the United States, which means the campaigning that has taken over American (and some Canadian) media discourse is almost at an end. 

In the last couple of weeks, we've noticed a theme of campaign fatigue working its way into news stories, pundit commentary and "everyday folk" opinions; we're ready for this thing to be over. 

While I know Americans have reached this point at the end of most presidential campaigns of the 24/7 media era, it seems (to me, anyway) worse this time around. 

And I think it's at least in part because of social media.  

Social media is a great democratizer... mostly

Don't get me wrong: I love following Facebook and Twitter on debate nights -- quite honestly, to watch a political debate (or the Oscars, or a Bomber game) without social media now feels like only half an experience. Social media gives us access to far more voices and information than we've ever had before, to provide context and dissenting opinions to help us interpret the things we see and hear.

This enriches the experience for me; for the kind of person who always reads footnotes, social media turns every one of these experiences into an annotated text. Or, maybe more accurately, a Pop Up Video.

I'll admit that I have enjoyed the snark, too. But when lighthearted teasing becomes ridicule, and mocking turns of phrase takes over for discussion of substantive issues, I think we turn a corner -- and I think that's contributing to the campaign fatigue.

"He said something that came out wrong" is not the same as "he is an idiot and unfit for public service," but sometimes we react as though it is.

It's not just politics 

I recently had a discussion with a PR colleague about how it seems we're all just a little quick to jump to criticism these days. 

Social media makes it easy. Even for those of us using our real names online, we can hide behind the sheer numbers; we are lulled into feeling it's safe to criticize without really understanding the story behind the story, because it seems everyone is doing it.

But maybe everyone shouldn't be.

B.C. teenager Amanda Todd's tragic suicide earlier this fall was a wake-up call to teens, parents, educators and anyone who cares about kids. Shortly after her death, mainstream media and social media sites were filled with stories about the bullying problem, and particularly, the issue of cyber-bullying.

In my Facebook timeline, which is fed by friends tending to be closer to middle-age, the posts shared outrage and sadness that this girl could have been tormented to this degree.

But I discovered in a conversation with someone much younger that her Facebook timeline (fed by friends in their teens) contained posts suggesting Amanda Todd had gotten what she deserved. 

Is our growing culture of ridicule part of the problem?

It appears the "grown-ups" can easily recognize what's wrong when a teenager is bullied to suicide (and point fingers at those we feel should have done something about it before it was too late). 

But maybe we need to consider whether there's a link between that and our own behaviour. 

Do we think a politician would be at risk of committing suicide because a bunch of faceless tweeters made fun of him/her? No. But where is the line? At what level of celebrity must a person accept that the rest of us are allowed to ridicule him/her, with or without cause, and with or without any experience to validate our opinions?

We rush to judge people -- celebrities, politicians, business leaders -- and organizations for their missteps. We call anything in any way negative a "PR disaster" or a "crisis." Politicians feign outrage every day, calling for one another's resignation, and we either jump on board or we yawn. Outrage and mocking have become entertainment -- and that can't be good.

Questioning and challenging are important. 

It's important for journalists to question leaders and organizations influencing our lives, and to expose hypocrisy where they find it.

It's also important for students of public relations (in school and in the working world) to examine issues and crises experienced by people and organizations in the public eye, and learn from how they dealt with them.

But let's keep it productive. 


  1. One test could be: Would you say that online stuff to a person's face?

  2. Absolutely right. I'll bet a lot of the time, the answer would be no.

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