The Good And Bad Of Social Media In A Democracy

by Jason Falls |

The International Visitor Leadership Program, an off-shoot of something run by the U.S. State Department, brought a group of journalists and bloggers from China to the U.S. recently. I met with them in Louisville on Friday to discuss new media journalism in the U.S. The hour-and-a-half long meeting gave them an opportunity to ask me questions about how bloggers and journalists in the U.S. deal with a variety of issues, including ethics in journalism, credibility in new and online media outlets, how Americans can be critical of their government but do so within the confines of our laws and the like.

Because several of the guests on the trip were also bloggers, more than traditionally trained journalists, as well as social media enthusiasts, they also asked many questions about social media marketing and advising companies on how to use the social web to connect with consumers.

Surprisingly, at least to me, they asked many of the same questions I’m asked regularly — how do you measure social media success, what is the ROI of social media, what areas are companies typically resistant to and how do you overcome that. It was refreshing to see that their questions were on par with similar individuals in the U.S.

Justice sends mixed messages
Image by Dan4th via Flickr

The first question that was asked of me that day was from Xiuli Zhuang, a Ph.D. holder and master instructor at Beijing Normal University, and one of the people responsible for, a social media community and learning center for the Chinese people. It was focused on the obvious political differences in our countries and how bloggers and journalists in America can, within the law, be critical of our government.

While her question was generally focused there, I chose to broaden my answer to explain the biggest difference between social media in America and what I assume to be social media in China. Granted, I’ve never been to China and don’t know for certain how their government reacts to this power-to-the-people movement in how we communicate, but I can assume a few things based on China’s precedents and the few news stories I’ve read about the government banning Facebook and other social media-related items.

I told her the biggest difference between social media here and there is that our government tends to wait for someone to die or sue to react to changes in public behavior. It typically takes a lawsuit for the U.S. government to consider policy change or even regulation or law that would apply to something not already covered by existing policy.

Is anonymity online protected under free speech? No, according to legal precedent. But that precedent wasn’t established until 2010 with lawsuits like Paul v. John Doe a/k/a “Davey Crocket” in which an anonymous poster on was found to have stated provably false items about Paul Syiek, who sued. The courts ruled the person’s identity should be revealed and he should be held liable for his misstatements.

China’s government, under my assumptions and admitted meagre knowledge, is more proactive and totalitarian in its response to societal change or uncertainty. Better to ban Facebook than to allow the public to open that can of worms. In America, we’re a Democracy. We let the public open as many cans of worms it chooses until one of the worms bites someone, makes them sick or infringes on someone else’s rights. Then, and only then, will our Government step in.

This is both good and bad. While Americans have always been rather spoiled and indignant because of their “Constitutional rights,” we often fail to see that in order to have them, we have to put up with or the comments section of our local newspapers. (An aside, the Courier-Journal in Louisville and other Gannett properties are moving to Facebook commenting systems to raise the level of discourse on their sites. Thank God!)

With the good (freedoms) come the bad (tolerating idiots we don’t agree with).

In China, the government tends to make decisions for the masses. While they might be well-intended, they aren’t democratic and thus result in disenfranchised citizens. That disenfranchisement can often become oppression as well. Or at least we think it can as freedom-loving and living Americans. My guess is that many Chinese would react to our anger their government “oppresses” them by telling us to lighten the hell up.

What this means for those of us in America, and other Western countries for that matter, is that only now are the lawsuits beginning. Our governments have not reacted to how we use the social web because, for the most part, to date no one has been hurt. But as more businesses and individuals become more knowledgeable and savvy with how social media works, who uses it and for what reason, more will find legal reasons to legislate how we use it.

Expect court cases to be in the news in the coming months and years that not only tell us how we can use social media, but how we can’t.

That’s a rude awakening coming for many of us.

What types of online behavior do you see being legislated out of permissibility in the coming years? Anonymous comments? Grey hat SEO techniques? Others? The comments are yours.

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About the Author

Jason Falls

Jason Falls is a leading thinker, speaker and strategist in the world of digital marketing and is co-author of two books, No Bullshit Social Media: The All-Business, No-Hype Guide To Social Media Marketing and The Rebel's Guide To Email Marketing. By day, he leads digital strategy for Elasticity, one of the world's most innovative digital marketing and public relations firms. Follow him on Twitter (@JasonFalls).