Power and peril
Last week law student Jover Laurio was forced to come out as the blogger behind the popular but anonymous Pinoy Ako Blog, which had become the subject of a virtual witch hunt among diehard supporters of President Duterte.
The threats and harassment that Laurio received from other bloggers averse to her critical stance vis-à-vis the administration amply illustrate the power and peril of social media.
She was forced to take a leave from work and from school because of the harassment that affected her family as well, Laurio said of the bullying posts that ranged from threats of physical violence to public shaming on her looks, as well as the violation of her privacy.
The anonymity offered by social media on the Web makes it easy for netizens to target, attack, and intimidate people they have not even met, and also enables bloggers to post false claims and misleading information.
With little accountability, social media has encouraged the rise of fake news that, in turn, has resulted in a fiercely divided community as other netizens band together to counter or dispute such controversial posts, often with as much bile.
The internet’s technical construct contributes to this polarization as well. Based on what one “likes” or posts regularly, Facebook’s algorithms funnel into one’s page similar items, news reports and suggested like-minded sites, in the process fortifying one’s beliefs and locking out contrary viewpoints.
Instead of an open and freewheeling discussion, social media encourages a narrower, more limited perspective that brooks no opposition.
The often toxic online discourse isn’t helped any by the internet’s extensive reach, especially in the Philippines, which has taken the global lead when it comes to time spent on social media.
According to the report Digital in 2017 by the social media management platform Hootsuite and the United-Kingdom-based consultancy We Are Social Ltd., Filipinos spend an average of 4 hours and 17 minutes a day on social media sites such as Facebook, Snapchat and Twitter. The figures were based on active monthly user data from social media companies as recently as January.
The Philippines has a social media penetration rate of 58 percent, higher than the average of 47 percent in Southeast Asia, the report said.
To be sure, social media’s popularity is much deserved. Connecting friends on Facebook, it has conquered time and space and cemented relationships. Such extensive reach and instant connectivity have also rallied people to causes — from raising funds to expressing support for victims of terrorism, to deposing abusive regimes. Think Arab Spring and the “Je suis Charlie” campaign.
At the same time, social media has changed values and attitudes—imperceptibly and, it seems, not always for the better. For many young netizens, the point of using social media is to get a lot of “likes,” that thumbs-up icon that gauges their popularity and shows how deeply their photographs, outfits, and activities resonate with other millennials.
In fact, social media’s culture of “likes” might be partly responsible for the bad rep youngsters are getting for being so self-absorbed.
Some say giving young people the option to express themselves by clicking the “Like” button can be empowering, and can even open doors.
How many times have talented Filipinos gotten world notice — and a spot on “Oprah” and “The Ellen Degeneres Show” — based on the number of likes and followers that their impromptu videoke session got?
But there’s a price to pay — not just in terms of attention given and hours spent, but also in terms of values that users learn to develop to get more “likes.”
How quickly young netizens learn that posing provocatively in skimpy clothes, doing some daring stunts, even hurting people and animals online, can harvest more “likes” than an ordinary shot!
And how easy to fall for that “good-looking dude” who enjoys one’s posts so much he’d like an eyeball with the young and impressionable netizen.
True, there is the Cybercrime Prevention Act of 2012 to which aggrieved citizens can turn, like Laurio, who said she would file civil and criminal cases against her harassers.
But much more needs to be done — in school, on various internet platforms, on one’s own wall — if social media were to become a tool for free and open communication, rather than a vicious weapon against dissent.
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