We are hearing an awful lot these days about how social media is changing the world, and that change is celebrated and criticised in equal measure. On the plus side, it is good to have instant access to our family and friends, to share our stories, and to encourage good and wonderful things that happen when people work together for the common good. Publicising worthy causes or events is much easier – and cheaper! – when all you need to do is click a button, rather than swamp an area with posters and putting adverts in papers.
However, on the negative side we have the rush to instant judgment, a trial by social media, and the more sinister accusations that democracy itself can be undermined if scurrilous stories, unfounded and indiscriminate, are placed on social media. Just think of how many times the Russians have been blamed for Brexit and the election of Donald Trump! (Which are accusations mostly made by people who didn’t want either outcome and are looking for something, or someone, to blame for these results.)
Bluntly, whatever our position on this is, we will have to learn to live with it. The genie is very firmly and completely out of the bottle. And is that such a bad thing? Not that it has not happened in the past: Martin Luther’s kick-starting of the Reformation would not have had the success it did if it had not been for the advent of printing, allowing him to disseminate material, material in German, not Latin, which made it the social media of the day.
Of course, any new media is bound to have an impact, and it will cause us to change the way we think about things, and for many of us this is a challenge; it took the Roman Catholic Church nearly a century after Luther’s protests to get its act together on the power of the printed press. There will be some of us who believe that the rot set in when we decided to abandon quill and parchment. But to suggest that social media is undermining the fabric of our society is nonsense. It in itself cannot be blamed for the gullibility of its readers. The fact that instant communication is possible, even though we may not know fully how to handle it, is a good thing. And if we have to learn to use it properly, well so be it. We did it when we learnt how to read printed books, we can do it again with social media.