As one of the amazing advances in modern communications technology that the world has seen since the last quarter of the 20th century, the advent of social media has been generally hailed as a positive development with considerable promise to revolutionize human interaction.
Social media was presented as offering a particularly big boost for freedom of speech and expression worldwide, especially in countries ruled by autocratic regimes that were known for repressing the fundamental human rights and freedoms of citizens, including restrictions on traditional news reporting.
This theory of social media was proved correct. The popular uprisings that led to the overthrow of a number of North African and Middle East regimes with such tendencies between 2010 and 2012 during the so-called Arab Spring, were fuelled by social media, which served as an effective tool for information sharing and people mobilization.
Over the years, social media has been used to promote various worthwhile causes that have resulted in positive change. In its variousc dimensions, it has served, for example, as an effective channel to wage campaigns to ensure greater accountability by leaders of government and also business. However, the growing concern today is more about the flagrant abuse of social media to spread gossip, rumour and stir up public panic and fear by perpetuating fake news.
We are very familiar with this ugly side of social media here in Barbados. Indeed, there was an example just yesterday when word was widely circulated via popular social media channels, particularly WhatsApp and Facebook, that there was going to be an islandwide shutdown of the water system from 8 p.m. because of the approach of Hurricane Maria.
As was to be expected, it sent Barbadians into a mad rush, as they hastened to store up water ahead of the “announced” shutdown time. The reality, however, was that the source of this information was not the Barbados Water Authority (BWA), the only credible source for such an announcement, but some unknown person or persons, assumably bent on creating mischief.
Even though there was no official announcement on the mainstream media, which is what usually happens, Barbadians, unfortunately, readily fell victim to the ruse.
Imagine, however, if it were another scenario that could have resulted in needless mass panic with possible injury to people. The growing abuse of social media in Barbados clearly suggests a need for some kind of protocol establishing guidelines for its acceptable use. The objective is not to limit freedom of speech and freedom of expression but to ensure that users accept an obligation to act responsibly.
Many Barbadians have an absolute concept of freedom of speech and expression.
“This is my mouth and I can say whatever I want to say,” is a common Bajan refrain. Such thinking clearly informs how many persons use social media to post whatever they feel with no consideration of the consequences of their actions.
This certainly is not a fine example of the “citizen journalism” which some observers said would have been spawned by social media to provide competition for the traditional media, which are unable to hide behind anonymity, as is so easily done on social media. Traditional media, though they may fall short occasionally, generally live up to their responsibility to ensure the dissemination of accurate information. Much concern has also been expressed about the widespread practice of posting gruesome images on social media of the victims of motor vehicle accidents, shootings or cutlass attacks. It thrives because Barbadians seem to have a huge appetite for such images which are generally not made available on traditional media.
Following a recent fatal shooting, a relative of one of the victims pleaded with persons posting pictures to spare a thought for the emotional effect on relatives, especially if they are unaware that such a fate had befallen their loved one. We support this relative’s plea.
We also call for more responsible use of social media so that it can more live up to the promise of being a positive force for the common good, instead of being a source of pain and destruction in reckless hands.