Im­por­tant to un­der­stand dark his­tory

The Star Malaysia - Star2 - - Opinion - Ni­cholas Bow­man is As­so­ciate Pro­fes­sor of Com­mu­ni­ca­tion Stud­ies, West Vir­ginia Univer­sity, United States. By NI­CHOLAS BOW­MAN

IT was in April 2016 that Face­book founder Mark Zucker­berg an­nounced that the so­cial me­dia plat­form was pro­vid­ing its nearly two bil­lion users the op­por­tu­nity to livestream con­tent. The move was viewed as a nat­u­ral ex­ten­sion of the plat­form’s pri­mary goal: pro­vid­ing a space for the av­er­age per­son to share his or her daily ex­pe­ri­ences, from the mun­dane to the mean­ing­ful.

Al­most as quickly, users found ways to live-broad­cast the worst of their na­ture, in­clud­ing the “Easter Day slaugh­ter” in which the fa­tal shoot­ing of a 74-year-old Cleve­land grand­fa­ther in the United States was livestreamed.

In re­sponse, calls have in­creased for Face­book to ei­ther shut­ter the ser­vice or find a way to bet­ter reg­u­late its con­tent. Noted AfricanAmer­i­can ac­tivist Rev Jesse Jack­son, for ex­am­ple, re­marked that Face­book Live is be­ing used by peo­ple “as a plat­form to re­lease their anger, their fears and their fool­ish­ness”. Many have re­ferred to th­ese be­hav­iours as Face­book’s “dark side” and de­manded that the com­pany find a so­lu­tion to pre­vent such an­ti­so­cial be­hav­iour.

How­ever, a brief look through the his­tory of so­cial me­dia shows us that dark be­hav­iours are nei­ther unique to Face­book nor some­thing new to to­day’s users.

Amer­i­can poet and tech­nol­ogy au­thor Judy Mal­loy wrote about the ear­li­est pre­cur­sors to so­cial me­dia net­works as places of creativ­ity and com­mu­nity. For ex­am­ple, pro­grammes such as Berke­ley’s Com­mu­nity Mem­ory al­lowed 1970s users a dig­i­tal space to post con­tent and share stories for oth­ers in the com­mu­nity to read, with pop­u­lar con­tent in­clud­ing per­sonal ads and short stories.

Yet even those hal­cyon days had their dark mo­ments. In 1985, au­thor Lindsy Van Gelder wrote about her ex­pe­ri­ences with the Com­puServe CB Sim­u­la­tor, one of the world’s first on­line chat rooms. Among the pop­u­lar chan­nels in CB Sim­u­la­tor were those de­voted to ro­mance and re­la­tion­ships. While many users found love on­line – a 1991 wed­ding hosted in CB Sim­u­la­tor is thought to be the first on­line wed­ding – in Van Geldr’s case, she was de­ceived into an in­ti­mate on­line ro­man­tic re­la­tion­ship by a man pos­ing as a dis­abled per­son.

Stories of sex­ual ag­gres­sion turned per­haps darker in 1998, when US tech­nol­ogy jour­nal­ist Ju­lian Dibbell wrote about a sex­ual as­sault that took place in a textbased on­line world called Lamb­daMoo. The no­tion of a sex­ual as­sault on­line might seem odd given that users have no phys­i­cal con­tact with one an­other. Yet, a Lamb­daMoo user named “Mr Bun­gle” hacked the pro­gram in a way that al­lowed him to have com­plete con­trol over other users’ be­hav­iours, such as their con­ver­sa­tions and de­scrip­tions of their move­ments.

He used this hack to cause users to en­gage in ob­scene and vi­o­lent sex­ual acts with their own bod­ies, hav­ing the play­ers de­scribe where and how they were touch­ing them­selves and oth­ers, but with­out con­sent, ac­cord­ing to Dibbell’s ac­count. Mr Bun­gle claimed that his ac­tions were just a prank, de­spite his vic­tims’ in­sis­tence that they had been hu­mil­i­ated by his ac­tions (or at least the ac­tions that he forced them to per­form or de­scribe while per­form­ing). The story is notable, given that on­line re­la­tion­ships can be just as in­ti­mate and im­por­tant as off­line ones.

Fast for­ward to early 2006, and the story of Evan Guttmann and his friend’s stolen Mo­torola Side­kick mo­bile phone cap­ti­vated the In­ter­net. What started as a sim­ple blog about a teenager who re­fused to re­turn the phone to its right­ful own­ers turned into a story of a grow­ing In­ter­net mob – fol­low­ers of Evans’s blog tracked down the teen’s home ad­dress and ha­rassed the fam­ily. Later in 2006, users of MyS­pace would hear the tragic story of Me­gan Meier, a Mis­souri teenager who took her own life af­ter the boy she met on­line (a MyS­pace user named “Josh”) shunned her. It was only later, af­ter in­ves­ti­ga­tions were done, that Me­gan’s fam­ily found out that the boy “Josh” was re­ally the mother of a girl that Me­gan had re­cently got into a fight with. That in­ci­dent led to the pas­sage of the United States’ first cy­ber­bul­ly­ing laws.

Th­ese stories are ex­am­ples of what can hap­pen when a sin­gle user dis­cov­ers ways to use a tech­nol­ogy that weren’t in­tended by de­sign­ers: us­ing the anonymity of Com­puServe to de­ceive, us­ing clever pro­gram­ming scripts to al­ter other users’ be­hav­iours, us­ing blogs to draw at­ten­tion to a mi­nor of­fense, and us­ing so­cial me­dia to cre­ate a false iden­tity. In each case, de­cep­tions and ac­tions had dra­matic real-life con­se­quences for those in­volved.

Most im­por­tantly, th­ese stories serve as ex­am­ples of how to un­der­stand Face­book specif­i­cally, and so­cial me­dia in gen­eral. It is im­por­tant that users re­alise that the ethics of Face­book com­mu­ni­ca­tion are no dif­fer­ent than the ethics of any other form of hu­man com­mu­ni­ca­tion. Rather than dis­miss­ing so­cial me­dia as wasteful and dis­tract­ing and pass­ing this per­spec­tive on to our chil­dren, they need to recog­nise that the en­ter­prise of hu­man com­mu­ni­ca­tion is as mean­ing­ful on­line as it is off­line.

Com­men­ta­tors have blasted Face­book’s livestream­ing op­tion as es­sen­tially bar­ri­er­less broad­cast­ing sys­tem, but such cri­tiques ig­nore the ben­e­fits of that “bar­ri­er­less” broad­cast­ing, such as con­nect­ing fam­i­lies sep­a­rated by oceans and pro­vid­ing voice to per­se­cuted groups. Even vi­o­lent footage can, at times, be ben­e­fi­cial: The Face­book Live broad­cast of a July 2016 po­lice shoot­ing in Min­nesota served as a pow­er­ful re­minder about so­cial in­jus­tice and polic­ing in the United States. Coun­tert­er­ror­ism forces have come to rely on so­cial me­dia posts to track and bet­ter un­der­stand ter­ror­ist ac­tiv­i­ties on­line.

To com­bat mis­use of livestream­ing, Face­book re­cently an­nounced the hir­ing of an ad­di­tional 3,000 mon­i­tors to screen live videos. How­ever, in my view, ul­ti­mately, the re­spon­si­bil­ity for the con­tent of so­cial me­dia falls to the dig­i­tal cit­i­zens who cre­ate and in­ter­act in the space on a daily ba­sis. – AP

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