If anyone has any doubt as to the real-world impact of social media, consider the recent battle between Motrin and the “mommy bloggers”. Motrin had released an ad, launched to coincide with international baby-wearing week, that presented an irreverent take on “wearing your baby”. Apparently too irreverent: a critical mass of indignant baby-wearing moms used blogs and Twitter to express their outrage, and Johnson & Johnson quickly pulled the ad and apologize prominently on the Motrin home page.
Let’s not waste time debating the ad (full disclosure: my wife, who is a baby-wearing mom, loved it). The real story here is that social media is a game changer for ad hoc protests. In the past, it might have taken weeks to organize a boycott. Now we see coordinated activism–and results–in hours. This is a big deal, and surely a wake-up call to anyone who still believes that social media are a fad.
But the increasing power of social media also raises concerns about information accountability, an issue I’ve discussed before on this blog. What happens if we use the power of social media to get a message out there and it’s wrong? Sure, it’s possible to recant and even issue public apologies (even South Park style), but extensive research shows the lasting power of a first impression, even in the face of contradictory evidence (this is a form of anchoring bias).
Does the immediacy of social media impose new responsibility on publishers because of the potential for harm? Or should non-professional journalists (aka “citizen journalists”) err on the side of “tweeting first and asking questions later”, letting the professionals take care of sorting out the facts.
The laws regarding defamation tend to favor publishers in the United States, in notable contrast to the corresponding laws in the United Kingdom, which essentially place the burden of proof on the publisher rather than on the offended party.
As an American, I can’t help but wonder if our laws reflect a different time, when publishers were scarce and highly conscious of their reputations. In a day when everyone can be a publisher–and an anonymous one no less–the balance of power to influence the public seems to have changed.
Overall, I see this power as a good thing, a triumph of democracy. Nonetheless, with great power comes great responsibility. Perhaps it’s best for the laws to err on the side of protecting free expression rather than protecting people from the harm that can be caused by malicious or reckless expression. That is the American ideal–to promote freedom of expression while recognizing that it comes at a price.
But it would nice to see publishers, whether professional or amateur, adjust to the new power of the virtual pen. Now that we have power, let’s show the world that we can use it responsibly.