CityLIS Writes: Making Sense of Social Media: A Chaotic Landscape

***This essay was written by CityLIS student Petra Killoran in January 2018. It is reproduced here with the author’s permission as part of our CityLIS Writes initiative.***

Lately in the social media landscape the horse has got the bit between its teeth, bolted and appears to be running rampant across the fields of Twitter, Facebook and other networks in varying degrees. Cyberbullying (Asthana and Steward, 2017. Knaus, 2018. Whittaker and Kowalski, 2014), inappropriate posts of suicide victims (Wong, 2018a) and political vilification (Press Association, 2017) are riding roughshod over privacy and security rights, and as some users forget themselves verbal thuggery has become the norm not the exception.

This assignment will explore the narrative of; online safety, network and personal responsibilities, behaviours and how truthful information fits into this landscape. By examining a sample of recent social media tweets and headlines and drawing upon some of the themes discussed in City Library Information Science (LIS) Data Information Technologies Applications (DITA) module, it hopes to gain an understanding of the relationship between social networking communities and their stance towards ethical online usage and behaviours of users. Lastly, it will explore what role LIS and ethical philosophies play in the social media arena. In order to keep the narrative manageable, the predominant source of evidence will be Twitter and Facebook networks and Luciano Floridi’s online self-concepts will act as a compass for ethical philosophies and perspectives.

Ethics, Social Media and Communication

Floridi suggests that ‘our moral machine needs much information to function properly’ (2010, p.105). Such theories about information seeking behaviour philosophies can help us to understand how users seek information and this then has a fundamental impact on their perceptions and actions (Hjørland, 1998, cited in Bawden and Robinson, 2012, p.37). Furthermore, as ‘ICTs affect an agent’s moral life in many ways’ (Floridi, 2010, p.103) a ‘well-informed agent is likely to do the right thing’ (Floridi, 2010, p.105) whereas, poor judgements and behaviour can come from poor information seeking (Floridi, 2010). These philosophies’ guide us in understanding how social media exchanges can be constructive or negative in quality.

Social media communication is not a new trend, Burly (2015) argues that social media has always been around it is just the format that is different. From cave paintings, oral stories, telegrams, written letters and emails people have shown the need to interact with each other. Social Networking Services (SNSs) usage now comprises of the largest amount of time spent on the internet (Bins, 2016).

Human beings are generally social creatures and interaction is a necessary part of our genetic makeup. Today, it is principally accepted that SNS are a form of communication (Bawden and Robinson 2014, Fuchs 2017). How the term social communication links with the internet is explained by Fuchs, who considers all computer web applications and systems that convey knowledge as social and as an ‘objectification of society and human social relations’ (2017, p.7). If we merge this theory with Luciano Floridi’s (2016) philosophy of human internet life as inforgs in the inforsphere, this then appears much like a Star Trek holodeck scenario, where reality of self can get misplaced. Consequently, the interactions LIS professionals forge creates a value of knowledge and information sharing that goes beyond text.

Ownership and Responsibility: The Right to be Safe Online

Over complicated terms and conditions (TCs) misdirect via clever use of language and an ever-increasing dependence of personal demands upon social media technologies expose us to unwarranted advertising and misinformation/disinformation as discussed by Bawden and Robinson (2012), are continuously putting us at risk. Here, Floridi points to ‘contractualism’ in ethics whereby both agents agree to terms in the contract and both obtain something in return (2010, p.114). When looking at the language in Twitter (Twitter.com, 2017) and Facebook (Facebook.com 2018) TCs, the onus to protect users is on the premise that the user is vigilant not the supplying agent, unlike banks, who will monitor changes in spending habits and warn you if they change drastically to avoid loss. LIS has played a large role within research (Haynes, 2015, Bawden and Robinson 2012, Haynes etal 2017, Hern, 2016) to inform the public about Privacy and Security. By using for instance Twitter, organisations such as Chartered Institute for Library Information Professionals (CILIP) can act as informing agents or ‘librarians as activists and the tensions between privacy, security and equitable access’ (CILIP, 2017). This focus shows the changing role of LIS professionals.

Facebook, went public in 2006, popular because of its uncomplicated technology and user-friendly systems. It has not looked back since introducing the first ‘Like’ button, enabling interaction with family and friends, making the site more interactive socially and taking business from sites like Myspace (Lovink, 2016, Bins 2017). Not wanting to risk ‘social death’ (Lovink, 2016, p.41) people rushed to create profiles and join. In the haste to do so they left themselves ignorant and exposed to online risk. Early warnings given by Agre in 2002 on networking behaviours still hold true today:

‘The first thing to realize is that Internet-world is part of reality. The people you correspond with on the network are real people with lives and careers and habits and feelings of their own. Things you say on the net can make you friends or enemies, famous or notorious, included or ostracized. You need to take the electronic part of your life seriously.’ (Agre, 2002)

Portable technologies such as smart phones, tablets and iPads allow greater flexibility and increased demand of social media. For instance, the Baby Boomer generations increased access to the internet is closing the so called digital divide, with 48% of 65-75-year olds now having social media accounts and 9 out of 10 opting for Facebook. Therefore, communication trends are changing. When asked about online privacy and security 16% of over 55s stated that they had not even considered their personal data risk (Ofcom, 2017). This clearly shows a need for a more robust internet safety information campaign aimed at older users. Here the role of LIS Librarians as educators within the area of ICTs ensure the vulnerable are informed.

Privacy, consent and risk factors of online social networks (OSNs) have been much studied (Haynes et al 2015, Haynes, 2016). Social networks constantly evolve and upgrade leading to greater dangers of personal data exposure. Theft, harvesting of information, user habit tracking leading to a barrage of advertising or accidental data exposure, geo-location trackers, risk of personal details being made public and changes to privacy settings all leave us susceptible to possible cyber-bullying, privacy breaches and online attack of individual dignity (Haynes et al 2015).

Recent criticism has concentrated around the site, privacy and security upgrades particular to Facebook (Hern, 2016), that leave users open to potential risks of data being unwittingly shared and the behavioural advertising and invasiveness of the site, which harvests user information/habits to enable third party personalised marketing adverts (Haynes et al 2015) is a concern. A reduction of 25% of users posting personal information on their pages shows more awareness of risk of oversharing, showing a greater trend of personal responsibilities.

Twelve years after going live and lacklustre with constant news feeds and over advertising, a clever public relations appeasement bid by Zuckerman announced that the site was going back its roots with less “passive content” and back to more “meaningful social interaction” (Wong, 2018b). This certainly highlights staying relevant as Zuckerberg, now a family man, wants to leave behind a legacy that is good for the world! After years of exploitation and profiteering maybe paternal or personal ethics have come into play. Although, perhaps a rather cynical person would say that it is a tactic for long-term survival.

Online Personas and Privacy

Online etiquette apart from email is non-existent, each person has their own style, filters and habits. Whereas some users exhibit Jekyll and Hyde behaviours because they are having a bad day leading to a loss of personal ethical behaviour/identity (Cheng, 2017), others overshare personal information.

There exists a dark side of social networking where an entitlement of proffering insults or derogatory comments is common. However, this is nothing new. The Elizabethans’ were highly skilled forerunners of cyber trolls with Shakespeare a master of his trade, as is evidenced by: ‘Villain, I have done thy mother…Thou elvish-mark’d, abortive, rooting hog!’ (Horton, 2016). Ever a master of a good insult, his plays have been taught in schools for generations.

Modern day social network trolls according to Burley, are sociopaths in need of attention and the ‘easily outraged cannot see a bandwagon without jumping on it’ (2015, p.5). Cyber-ethnographers studying trolling behaviours, with particular interest in the Madeline McCann ‘Trolling Gangs’ found that ignoring abuse and staying silent does nothing to stop it. Entering into a logical debate was met with more threats and caused further abuse. In addition, ‘internet trolls seem impervious to any efforts to change their behaviours’ (Nature.com, 2017). Burley aptly suggest that, ‘true trolls are internet users that set out to ruin someone’s day, everyone else is just someone who disagrees with you, that is allowed’ (2015, p111). Therefore, at times the perception between what is critique and what is an insult can become blurred.

However, contrary to oversharing, Marder et al. discuss what they term as the ‘chilling effect’ where users manage their ‘online personas’ (2016) to conform to the expectations of others to such a degree that this can transfer to off line life. Evidence supplied by Facebook also submits that the huge majority of users participate in self-censorship (Das & Kramer, 2013) which is at odds with Derks and Bakker’s findings ‘that people say they value their privacy, but in practice they often act otherwise’ (2013, p.51).

27th Dec 2017: As Prince Harry interviews Barrack Obama for Radio 4 and the ex-president has some words of warning concerning online discourse. ‘One of the dangers of the internet is that people can have entirely different realities. They can be just cocooned in information that reinforces their current biases’ (Turner, 2017). This is a valid point, yet one wonders if it is aimed at the new president’s social media habits.

Twitter has become a politicians’ tool and Parmalee and Bitchard (2013) proport that it can bring communication between government and the people closer. That said, surely it would depend on the quality of the information? Motives for political Twitter use revolve around self-expression, two-way conversation to gain viewpoints and critique (Parmalee and Bitchard, 2013) amongst others. Whatever the intention Twitter has become a main driver for political debate and has influenced election campaigns for Jeremy Corbin and Donald Trump for better or for worse. ‘Fake News’ originally coined by Frederick Burr Opa in 1894 (Loc.gov. 2018) has become a constant amongst informational credibility terminology. Yet, truth can have many sides according to view point. Factual information lies at the heart of LIS and many sites now spread disinformation to influence the public in order to gain power. Floridi explains that, ‘Moral Life is a highly information-intensive game, so any technology that radically modifies the ‘life of information’ is bound to have profound moral implications for the moral player’ (Floridi, 2010, p.103). This could be one explanation for such behaviours.

Social Media: Politics via Clicktivism and Slacktivism

Fuchs discusses social systems as having ‘economic aspects of ownership, labour, decision making and reputation generation…and systems with their own distribution of power in economic, political and cultural respects’ (2017, p.81). Here the distribution of individual viewpoints can join with the tools of social media to produce dialogue. However, Fuchs also cites Morozov (2009) who disparages those who click on likes and befriending, calling it “slacktivism” a ‘feel-good online activism that has zero political or social impact’ (2017, p.230) claiming it to be the illusion of meaningful involvement without demanding anything more.

Whereas, Spier discusses the presence of unequal social capital distribution via ‘likes’, linking, attention, ‘followers’ and certain groups or agents giving more platform and so ensuring that some are more visible online and therefore have the power to change and influence over others with less presence (2017). Thus, the more attention you get the more likely you are to be seen. Ethically this distribution of power is unbalanced but no different than in other areas of life and creates yet another platform for a few. However, by joining in the debates via ‘likes’ and retweets thereby ensuring more presence, one could argue that you are part of the demand for change which takes us back to Fuchs’s (2017) ‘clicktivism’ philosophy. It follows that there is a relationship contract between the producers and the consumers of the posts that creates an ethical requirement to communicate reliable true facts. Regrettably that is not always the case and here LIS research can help to inform the public, however as not everyone reads journal articles the audience could be limited due to accessibility.

Accountability

All networks including Facebook and Twitter should be accountable for ensuring that information placed via their sites is factual and legal yet the trend towards misinformation and disinformation increases. One Russian ‘Troll Factory’ in St Petersburg is thought to have disrupted Brexit, the United States (US) and United Kingdom (UK) election processes by misdirecting over 126 million people online. Both Facebook and Twitter have handed over evidential information to UK and US government regulatory bodies (Mason, 2017). This at least shows some form of accountability. Although privacy should be a basic requirement between provider and user, in the case of illegal activity this must be forfeit.
Neither Facebook (Facebook, 2017) or Twitter (Twitter.Inc, 2017) make any mention of ethical obligation on their policy sites or state how judicious they are when checking their news feeds or advertisements but at least with Twitter ‘What’s yours is yours’ (Twitter.Inc, 2018). Perhaps like cigarette packets social networking sites (SNSs) should carry with them a visible health and safety warning? Social responsibility should start with governments and organisations, here LIS has an active reputation via professional bodies such as CILIP and the Library Association where difficult questions are asked and recommendations are made that are essential to information science credibility and safety holding weight with media and government bodies (Bawden and Robinson, 2012). In a bid to clean up their country’s internet providers responsibilities, Germany is leading the way with new tighter regulations.

1st January 2018: ‘Germany is set to start enforcing a law that demands social media sites move quickly to remove hate speech, fake news and illegal material’ (BBC News, 2018). Whilst some countries lag behind Germany have taken an ethical zero tolerance step and have started to enforce the new, Netzwerkdurchsetzungsgesetz (Internet Protection Safety Law). By introducing heavy fines of up to 50,000 Euros to online organisations who do not take down offensive materials and monitor their sites appropriately, it hopes to increase network accountability conduct. Although heralded as step in the right direction to protect users’ rights and privacy in explicit detail from false and abusive materials, administering and monitoring this legislative stance is no mean feat and how its impact will be enforced and judged remains to be seen.

Twitter, Politics and the Workplace

When applying theory to social media in the workplace, organisations including LIS predominantly adopt a utilitarian theory position as the aim is to have the benefits outweigh any harms, thus protecting the infrastructure, reputation and credibility; but from an employee’s point the Kantian rights to unrestricted choice and use are foremost (Bratton and Candy, 2013). With such juxtaposed and competing goals social media in the workplace or in a privileged position is bound to come into conflict. This is clearly apparent when using the President of United States of America’s (USAs) tweets as an example.

3rd January 2018: Ripples of genuine horror and surprise went around the globe as countries looked on whilst the North Korean Leader and the ‘Leader of the Free World,’ Donald Trump exchanged ego driven tweets that threaten nuclear war coming to a head. The 3rd January saw the tweet below, almost a declaration of war, resonate around the globe: ‘Will someone from his depleted and food starved regime please inform him that I too have a Nuclear Button, but it is a much bigger & more powerful one than his, and my Button works!’ (BBC News, 2018)

Here Luciano Floridi’s theory of self-conception mixed with Trumps hyper- self-consciousness (2014) political power, poor judgements and lack of information put what is deemed ethical into orbit. Bratton and Candy (2014) describe the US federal governments ethical challenges with regard to questionable practices that have global implications, while also discussing governments responsibilities as a role model and citing transgressions in the Reagan, Clinton and Obama administrations towards a need for clear ethical guideline changes. This shows a distinct need for an overhaul of ethical use and training guidance as the same mistakes keep being repeated. LIS professionals have a clear code of ethics and responsibilities to avoid such disasters and although working at a differing public level to any government, within its existing ethical framework it shows concern for the public and responsible service at its core (CILIP, 2012).

5th January 2018: Under pressure to curb dangerous presidential tweets Twitter (Twitter.Inc. 2018) released a statement via their Blog that stated,
‘Blocking a world leader from Twitter or removing their controversial Tweets would hide important information people should be able to see and debate. It would also not silence that leader, but it would certainly hamper necessary discussion around their words and actions.’ (Twitter Inc.2018)

Whilst agreeing that some form of censorship, at the very least self-censorship, should exist to ensure we are kept safe from inflammatory tweets that could escalate towards war, it is not for Twitter to practice censorship over Donald Trump but his party and the respective houses of government. If we go down the road of the 1984 Orwellian society over lordship and censor such material the truth remains hidden (Spier,2017p.133) therefore, Twitter is correct to proclaim such a stance. LIS professionals have to grapple with what is moral, safe and legal within the role of protectors of truthful information interactions by making difficult choices of how and what information is available, whilst remaining conscious of the juxtaposition of intellectual freedom and censorship dilemmas (Bawden and Robinson, 2012). At times we must stand back so as not to apply personal judgements upon others.

4th January 2018: The children’s commissioner in the UK warns of ‘children unprepared for social media cliff edge’ in a recent report entitled, ‘Life in Likes’ (The Children’s Commissioner, 2018). Astonishingly, managing multiple media accounts, liking, accepting and being accepted, being talked about and answering messages instantly is becoming more prevalent habit for many 8-12-year olds. Perpetuating a validation culture (Floridi, 2014). Also, many, especially girls wake to check their social media to such a degree it is causing anxieties with teens in particular feeling an enormous burden to be liked (Udorie, 2015). Positively, parents are getting the message of online safety, however confusion of communication intent and meaning caused great uncertainty and anxiety generally (Children’s Commissioner, 2018). The need to chase ‘likes’ and comments for social validation, places undue pressures psychologically upon self-image and esteem. Floridi suggests ‘ICT’s are the most powerful technologies of self’ (2014, p.59) as they modify the context in how we view ourselves have a ‘deep impact upon personal identities’ (Floridi, 2010:60). This is equally true of adult users many of whom are also vulnerably insecure. Further research and proactive public education campaigns would help to understand such behaviours and possibly lead to a more ethically engaged online community.
Fundamentally, how we are searching and sharing knowledge and information has changed within LIS. ‘Social media work is an increasingly important part of information professionals’ jobs’ (Simons et al., 2016, p.23) communicating, updating, marketing, events organisation, making materials public and sharing have become an online instead of on paper activity requiring greater knowledge and skill (Simons et al., 2016). By using social media networks such as Facebook and Twitter LIS organisations (CILIP, IFLA British Library) remain relevant participants in the topical conversation and therefore the significance to LIS in social capital cannot be ignored.

In addition, many LIS researchers are seeking to improve and highlight areas of concern such as privacy risk and security (Haynes, 2016, Haynes etal., 2016, Derks and Bakker, 2013) of online networking habits and are informing the work of LIS and the public of their dangers. Therefore, LIS is part of an ongoing narrative of policy incorporation to ensure a safe ‘onlife’ environment within public and organisational libraries. Furthermore, libraries remain a safe haven for those who cannot access internet rights as their social currency is poor. In this way their ethical requirements within the internet, human rights legislation is being met (Human Rights Council, 2015).

Conclusion

As politicians use social media to motivate change, the discussion around ethics and morals are an intrinsic part of information finding and behaviours on social media. Our sense of identity can become fragmented to suit an online world and its expectations. The more well informed and correct the information the more likely that the interaction is to be a positive one. LIS can go a long way to help balance and inform us of ethical implications, rights and responsibilities and help to change the landscape to make it more safe and credible for users. Privacy and safety online is still an area for concern and the wellbeing of social network users is still placed firmly at their feet by sites such as Facebook and Twitter. Informing ourselves will ensure that we remain vigilant and can protect against illegal or immoral use or abusive comments. Trolling and cyber abuse is a sad by-product of social media. More studies into online behaviours could provide useful information to shape the perceptions of the next generation in order to make them robust savvy social media users and LIS professionals are leading the way as negotiators between these problematic changes to the publics online self.

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About Joseph Dunne

Joseph is a practitioner scholar in theatre and library information science who teaches at several universities. His research interests include immersive performance, performative writing, digital culture, documenting and archiving, and audience participation. He is currently investigating the aesthetics of the post-truth era. You can learn more about Joseph's work at www.josephjohndunne.com.
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