5th Hackney Debate: Social media – a blessing or a curse?

George Alagiah - chair of 5th Hackney debate

Social media – is it a blessing or a curse? This was the topic of Friday’s 5th Hackney Debate which saw the BBC’s George Alagiah chair a discussion of how social media is shaping society, and in some cases how society is shaping social media.

5th Hackney Debate
The panel at the 5th Hackney debate

With Olivia Solon, Associate Editor at Wired UK, Paulo Gerbaudo, author of Tweets and Streets, Stephen Foster, headteacher of Hackney’s Bridge Academy, and Caroline Criado-Perez,  famous for campaigning for women to appear on banknotes, the panelists came at the key issues from a wide range of approaches – from the activist’s to the educator’s.

However, it was debate chair George Alagiah who really hit the nail on the head when describing how endemic social media has become to society – apparently a whopping five million children under five are on Facebook.

Here are the top 5 thoughts to come out of the debate

1. Social media has given disabled activists a voice.

Caroline Criado-Perez received death threats on Twitter after campaigning on the social media site for women to appear on banknotes, yet she enthuses about the scope of social media and the wider internet for activists. “Activists can now reach out to people they never could have before, and we’ve seen a huge expansion in disabled activism over social media.”

For her, the advent of online petitions and lobbying over Twitter has changed the face of activism, with the success of online petition sites like change.org meaning that petitions no longer stay static, as people can keep on adding their support to campaigns.

2.  Twitter’s actually a rather democratic place: it’s not whom you know or how many people follow you that matters, it is that everyone from world leaders to celebrities to the man on the street is essentially in reach.

Olivia Solon of Wired UK
Olivia Solon, Editor of Wired UK – Image: Pierre Metivier

“One of the great things about social media is whether you’ve got 100 followers or 10 million, those two people CAN communicate to [sic] each other,” said Olivia Solon.

3. What’s wrong with social media is not the tools themselves, but how people use them.

“If we don’t like what social media is presenting us [with], we should look at society instead, not just the tool they communicate with,” said Caroline Criado-Perez.

Another panelist added that if you got a nasty letter in the post, you wouldn’t blame the postman or Royal Mail.

Cyber bullying, which Stephen Foster, the headmaster, said 60% of 15-year-olds had experienced, was another case in point – bullies have always existed, just the methods they’ve used have changed.

4. Removing anonymity would not solve social media’s problems; in fact, it would would be detrimental.

“Most of the people who tweeted me threats were easily identifiable – they used their real names, had pictures of them with their kids and didn’t care at all about anonymity,” Criado-Perez replied when an audience member asked about whether removing anonymity on social media sites would make them safer for users.

Several of the panelists added that removing anonymity from sites like Twitter could actually be detrimental to human rights activists and people living under dictatorships but who wanted to speak out, and who need the cover of anonymity to continue their work.

5. Social media is a huge organising tool – for bad and for good.

Politicians blamed social media for making it easier for rioters to organise in the 2011 London riots.

However, Solon argued: “It’s wrong to describe the 2011 riots as ‘the social media riots’ as politicians did, when social media was used just as much by people against the riots to organise clean-ups and to get home safely.”



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