Leading Change & Lending Reputations

There was an extremely interesting article in this weekend’s Globe & Mail that highlights some important issues about how we evolve as a society. Ostensibly profiling the meteoric rise to awareness of the Stop Kony video, produced by Invisible Children, it raises some fundamental questions about how issues are addressed, explored and resolved in a society in which social media now takes an important role.

In one week, an organization no one had heard of took an issue that wasn’t visible, about a person no one knew, and firmly planted itself in the centre of (at least North American) political and social consciousness. If anyone doubted the power of social media to influence politics and policy, those doubts should now be clearly and firmly laid to rest. At the time the article was laid out in the paper, the number of video viewings on YouTube were 56,647,137. That number, at the time of writing this some two days later, is now 71,575,793.

We have seen growing influence in the ability of social media to create social awareness and social change. Occupy, WikiLeaks, Stop SOPA, and the more muted but still effective opposition to the proposed Canadian web surveillance legislation, all owe their success to the power of social media.

For politicians and policy makers, this has profound implications. The public at large is not prepared for lawmakers to deliberate in backrooms, and paternalistically propose and implement laws because, in their narrow view, they are in the best interest of society as a whole. Despite the fact that this is pretty much how their current job descriptions read.

At the same time, it has implications for us, the public. While ’we’ might think that ’we’ are independently and collectively rising to fight social wrongs and injustice, ’we’ are often being manipulated to do so. And ’we’ aren’t necessarily aware of it.

As the Globe & mail article points out, the Kony 2012 video is a slickly (and expensively) produced production that relies on some specific rhetorical tools to communicate a message, manufacture a mood and elicit a response. One person created an idea, asked people to do one thing (share the results with their own social communities) and in so doing, got them to lend their social credibility to that one person’s cause. Many of the facts presented in the video have been argued to be either erroneous, misleading or bordering on misrepresentation. Those arguments of reason, while important to understand, are quiet voices compared to the cacophony of indignation that the video has prompted.

The Occupy movement shares a similar origin. It was conceived by a rich, old, white, male, while lying in the bath in his expensive five-acre farm on the outskirts of Vancouver. The 99 percent got motivated by a single individual who is firmly part of the one percent, but who, as publisher of Adbusters, motivates the indignations and actions of those at the other end of the social and financial spectrum.

My intent is not to criticize the merits of any given movement, or to argue social media should not be a tool of social change. It is that we, the users of that tool, have an obligation to use it responsibly.

Our current political system evolved as it did with the intent that politicians (their current behaviour notwithstanding) take the time and invest the intellectual capacity to debate, consider and provide sober second thought on the issues of the day. Their job was to govern for the good of society as a whole, and to not be beholden to specific interests or agendas. That we are well removed from that ideal is blindingly obvious to most of us. It is, in part, a motivator for the rise in influence of social media in the political realm.

At the same time, if we are now to engage as directly as social media allows, then we have an obligation to inform and educate ourselves on the issues we debate and particularly the positions we take. If we are going to advance a cause, we need to understand the stand that we are taking, and the implications of doing so. If we lend our reputation to someone else’s cause, preserving the value of our reputation depends upon doing so where it is merited. Which means we need to consider the merits. It is easy to click ’like’, ’retweet’ or ’reply’.  Just because it is easy, however does not mean that we always should, or that there isn’t a price for doing so. When we are gone, all that will remain is our reputations. We should at least consider the cost before we lend our reputations to others.

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