Andrew Conte’s Focus on Media: Social media require user responsibility |
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My 18-year-old son recently joined Facebook. Until now, he apparently believed only parents and grandparents use that social media platform, because we do.

But when he got accepted into college, the school suggested he log in to make friends before arriving on campus. We had a “face book” when I arrived at college too, but it literally had pages of my classmates’ photographs with biographical information underneath.

No doubt social media have forever changed the way we communicate. Birthdays now mean that people from across the years and around the globe can check in with greetings. Social scientists used to geek out over the “six degrees of Kevin Bacon,” but now it’s a common curiosity to discover otherwise unrelated friends in our feeds who already know each other. Worlds are colliding, as “Seinfeld’s” George Costanza would say.

Social media can be entertaining but come with consequences. Connectivity brings many dividends but also changes the landscape dramatically, Zaid Hassan argues in his book “The Social Labs Revolution.” If our problems grow exponentially while our understanding emerges linearly, collapse becomes a mathematical certainty, to paraphrase him.

We are encountering something like that on Facebook and other social media platforms: Our understanding of these communications links hasn’t evolved as quickly as their uses — for better and for worse.

Consider the unsealed indictments from Special Counsel Robert Mueller in the Russia investigation. He accused 13 Russians and three Russian organizations of meddling in the U.S. presidential election and using social media to divide Americans and cause uncertainty.

They allegedly stole identities of real Americans and used them to create hundreds of social-media accounts and fake affinity groups designed to confuse and sway voters. And it worked.

Even people close to the president, including his son, had retweeted posts from a fake Russian-backed Twitter account, @TEN_GOP, which attracted more than 100,000 followers.

In this digital age, it’s not even enough to employ President Reagan’s Cold War saw: “Trust, but verify.” There are few ways to easily check the true identity of who owns a Facebook account or Twitter handle.

Social-media users can employ common sense: Trust people you know in the real world, and not just online. Repost something if you know it’s accurate, and not just because it reinforces your worldview. If a posting seems too strange to be true, it might be.

Americans must rethink their relationship with the news too. We have come to a point where many people put more faith in unverified information on social media — because it squares with their personal beliefs — than in trusting hard-working journalists who often challenge the opinions we hold. That has to change.

Engaging on social media requires responsibility. These platforms might seem like all fun, but they have real-world impacts that can cause negative results. To catch up with reality, social-media users must get serious.

Andrew Conte is the director of the Center for Media Innovation at Point Park University.

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