There have been a spate of articles in the local press recently discussing how the rise of social media has led to a decline in civility within the community and decrying people’s willingness to rush to judgement. A common lament is that the relative anonymity of online interaction and the need to make the greatest impact invariably leads to acrimony, accusation and indignation. This is then blamed for what is seen by some as a general breakdown in levels of trust and respect, to the point where many people have apparently lost their sense of what is appropriate behaviour in different social situations and environments.

Personally, I think this is a complete misreading of the whole situation. The only thing social media has done is allow people to share their own views and experiences with large groups of other people, instead of just consuming whatever is packaged up and served to them in isolation by traditional media. The problem with that is people then start to read and hear about things that don’t quite stack up against the official packaged line.

Suddenly it all becomes pretty clear that almost every company, bank, advertising agency, religious institution and political organisation has been taking full advantage of everyone’s trust, loyalty and respect for years to lie, cheat, poison, pollute and generally enrich themselves at other’s expense, often without restraint.

With large scale peer-to-peer communication, we quickly found out that the lovely insurance company with the cute baby in it’s ad regularly terminates people’s policies as soon as they get cancer. That someone who just joined gets a far better rate than you even though you’ve been with the same company for the past 40 years. That a much loved technology company is claiming just a few isolated incidents when there are hundreds of thousands of complaints together with pictures all over the web. That apparently you were not the only one molested by that priest after services at church. That the big company who just spent millions on a new logo with a tree in it and a flashy new sustainability policy still just pumps all its toxic waste straight into the river.

Moreover, the police, who should be the ultimate symbols of trust and respect in any society, will apparently just make up whatever they want in their reports, plant evidence, or even shoot you with what appears to be total impunity. Even when this is recorded on camera for all to see, they will still typically be found not culpable. Obviously not every policemen is like this, but the feelings of abject betrayal and fear those incidents induce in people is not easily contained to just those who are.

This is especially so when the fast pace of sharing on social media results in many people having a more detailed knowledge of what happened than the hapless departmental spokesperson desperately trying to dampen things down when they either haven’t yet seen all that is being shared or haven’t had a proper internal briefing as it is still being ‘investigated’. To the outside observer, this just looks like a cover up by a knowing system that breeds and enables that kind of behaviour.

Thus, I don’t think we can blame social media for the fact that people have stopped being deferential and respectful to those in positions of trust and authority. The blame really lies with all those who are/were in a position of trust and authority and used that to lie, cheat, poison, pollute and generally enrich themselves at other’s expense, and shoot people.

The population as a whole is generally pretty sensible and intelligent so, what is interpreted as a willingness to rush to judgement by some, is actually just the logical assumption that we are being lied to or cheated in some way. Based on what we now know as a result of social media, this is often the safest bet and most likely scenario.

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