Social media: With power comes responsibility

History teaches us that the psychology of crowds can lead to dark outcomes if left unchecked

In recent weeks, social media has been effectively and powerfully used to uncover a broad spectrum of issues ranging from inappropriate behaviour in the workplace to serious sexual crimes. Revelations of decades of potentially criminal acts against women by film producer Harvey Weinstein have sparked a wave of accusations against other powerful men in the worlds of politics, arts, entertainment and media. Some of these stories were uncovered by newspapers and magazines, but many others were self-published online, and amplified by corroborating testimony on social media.

Closer to home, allegations of bullying and harassment against former Gate Theatre director Michael Colgan were published first on the Tumblr page of theatre director Grace Dyas before being followed up by newspapers and broadcasters. There is no comparison between the gravity of the allegations against Weinstein and those against Colgan, but there has been a regrettable tendency to conflate the two in the ensuing social media conversation.

The arrest of an Irish television producer in Leeds last weekend following a sting operation by vigilantes further illustrates the new ways in which online activists are taking action into their own hands. Social media platforms have become so ubiquitous that they are regarded as a public commons by the majority of the population – even if, in reality, they are profit-driven private enterprises. We should therefore not be surprised when groups of people come together online to act in this way. Such actions can be genuinely empowering. Digital media gives people a voice they previously did not have, and online connectivity allows them to find support from those who have had similar experiences.

Empowerment and solidarity are values to be cherished, but so too are due process and the right to one’s reputation. The instantaneous emotional reactions which social media are deliberately built to elicit can also provide fertile ground for irrational actions and even mob rule. History teaches us that the psychology of crowds can lead to dark outcomes if left unchecked. The challenge in this area, as in so many other affected by digital transformation, is to define new social norms and – where required – laws to provide those checks.