This article first appeared in the Toronto Star on December 10, 2017.
Social media is an empowering tool, and one that has breathed new oxygen into our political process. It allows people to organize, to question and to rally. It has enhanced our democracy and changed it for the better.
Movements like #metoo, which has broken the silence surrounding sexual harassment and assault, have found their power in social media. The quickness, reactivity and openness of social media has meant that men of power who have been abusers no longer control the dialogue.
Those in power don’t have power over social media forums. Those who once had little ability to reach the masses can now do so with no fear of being clamped down on or controlled by those in power.
It is safe to say that without Twitter, there would still be a cone of silence around issues such as sexual harassment and assault.
Twitter has been used to shine a light on dozens of other issues. It has helped protestors organize. And it has helped dethrone despots.
Safe to say, social media has changed our world for the better.
And yet, there is a dark side of the moon.
The immediacy, reactive nature and openness of social media can cause grave damage, as well. Just as we have seen it used as a formidable tool to topple the powerful, the use of social media can ignite a fire that quickly burns out of control. The lack of control embedded in the use of social media means it can be weaponized against innocent people.
Take, for instance, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s recent apology to the LGBTQ community on behalf of the Government of Canada for historical unfair treatment. It was a moving moment, and one that found cross-partisan support. Canadians across the country took to social media to express their happiness about the decision.
But something not so celebratory occurred. A tweet by a member of the press gallery stated that a section of seats among the Conservative party ranks were empty, with no context. Others soon took photos and circled the “missing members,” highlighting their names and user names. Tweets in response ominously accused the members of a concerted Conservative walkout to protest the apology.
The social-media outcry was swift and harsh. The “missing members” were decried as homophobic, bigoted and insulting. Thousands of tweets harassed the members for their insensitivity and critiqued the Conservative Party for not having emerged from the Dark Ages.
The problem was, it wasn’t accurate. A number of the “missing members” were, in fact, present and had simply moved to other seats. Others were at already scheduled events in their ridings or at scheduled personal commitments.
In fact, there was no credible evidence of a Conservative member boycotting the announcement.
But within 12 hours, many Tories faced on onslaught of personal criticism on Twitter by users who had not checked their facts. Those Twitter users gleefully besmirched a happy moment and the personal reputation of roughly a dozen Conservative MPs, entirely erroneously.
In fact, the misinformation continues to circulate two weeks later.
Talk about fake news.
The rush to judgment followed by an immediate backpedal was not an isolated occurrence.
It represents a situation that has occurred hundreds of times over social media in the past several years. Unfortunately, it’s a lesson that has not yet been learned.
We live in an era that thrives on immediacy, and the rush to produce content has hampered the importance of getting the facts right. It is a problem that we have constructed ourselves and one that we must fix.
The problem is that the apologies are never louder than the accusations. Headlines that blare of wrongdoing get infinitely more attention than the sheepish tweets admitting wrongful accusation.
There isn’t a simple fix to this problem. No legislation or Twitter policies or policing will change this.
It often seems innocuous to press the key that broadcasts information to our entire network. It’s easy and instantaneous and requires little thought.
But that action can have devastating effects. And so the change must begin with us.
We must learn to reread and rethink before we retweet.
Jaime Watt is the executive chairman of Navigator Ltd. and a Conservative strategist.