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Michele Weldon

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Tweet This, Deny That: Social Media and the End of Denial

Posted: 12/08/11 05:09 PM ET

Has social media marked the death of effective denial? Will texting, Twitter, Facebook, youtube and Skype serve as deterrents to unethical behavior?

Ask former Republican presidential hopeful Herman Cain if he believed text messages would end his bid for the White House. Ask Sharon Smalls, a New York high school principal, if a scandalous Facebook photo has not proven problematic for her career. Ask a parent if the tracking software installed on a teenager's Sprint phone has led to any unwelcome discoveries.

Digital shaming has become the newest form of public stocks, ensuring the wrongdoings of individuals are widely known and impossible to erase.

Even beyond exposure of a single person's deeds, the Arab Spring taught us that social media is forcing sunshine into cultures where the government denies obvious truths. Although Syrian President Bashar al-Asaad this week claimed ignorance of a crackdown on rebels resulting in 4,000 deaths, ask Syrian dissidents if they have a fear of being punished for using Skype as a tool of spreading the resistance. Ask Occupy protesters in Rio de Janeiro if Facebook and Twitter do not strengthen their numbers, impact and resolve.

Recently it seems as if there is not a human interaction we can engage in as an individual or a community that is unrecorded and rendered permanently irrefutable by a text, tweet, video, phone photo, posted comment or location tracking device. This constant gathering of potentially incriminating evidence is not done solely by police, governments, employers or journalists, but by ordinary citizens, former friends, lovers, spouses, acquaintances, family members and strangers on the street. Therein lies the rub.

With Facebook's purchase this week of Gowalla, a location-finding service for social networks, and the installation of Carrier IQ, a location tracker on cell phones, it seems even if we want to be lost, we can always be found.

Alfred Hermida, associate professor at the Graduate School of Journalism at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, said at a recent conference, "Sharing is now becoming central to the way a large number of people experience their news." He added, "It's how we find out about the world."

And how we tell the world of others' wrongs.

The outcome of the merging of the personal and the public may move beyond questions of an invasion of privacy into enforced truth-telling, effectively reducing the world into one very gossip-hungry small town. The threat of us being caught in untoward or criminal behavior by anyone using a digital platform to record the acts may well make us tow the line. Social media possibly has become society's externalized conscience.

This swirling culture of digital evidence makes the lure and romance of solving mysteries by wit and wisdom alone appear quaint and entertaining. In the latest Sherlock Holmes Hollywood sequel now in theaters across the country, the late 19th century character played by Robert Downey Jr. uses slow motion martial arts and brilliantly quick reasoning to uncover wrongdoing. Imagine his power if he added social media to his deductive arsenal.

Yes, contemporary law enforcement has been using social media messages as evidence for years. The New York Police Department has a social media unit tracking Facebook and Twitter for potential flash mobs and incitements of violence or other crimes. In the United Kingdom, two men were jailed last summer for creating social disorder in London on a Facebook page called, "Warrington Riots."

Follow either CBS television show NCIS or Criminal Minds with its quirky forensic tech genius character, Penelope Garcia, and you will quickly learn every suspect unwittingly leaves a tech-based footprint. Though the Connecticut Supreme Court recently ruled that Facebook messages could not be authenticated and were therefore excluded as evidence, in the court of public opinion, social media evidence has led to admissions of guilt. Just ask Anthony Weiner.

Journalists as well as police have a proud tradition of centuries of uncovering and exposing wrongs using the tools of investigation, interviewing, research and data review. In the past five years, the exponential growth of social media as a journalistic resource guarantees a more democratic inclusion of sources and the ability to tell more fully dimensional stories with access to more evidence updated in real time. It is a way to find the truth and disseminate it.

But it works both ways. Social media can be used against unethical or inaccurate journalists. I tell my freshmen journalism students at Northwestern University's Medill School that unlike the Watergate era in the 1970s when I studied journalism, today any error or ethical breach such as plagiarism or fabrication by a journalist will be exposed immediately. As soon as an article is posted -- someone in the cyber audience is ready with a fact-check and a rebuttal. My wish is that it makes us all better journalists, accountable instantly to the truth.

Surely I understand that since the beginning of time, humans have committed acts of infidelity, unethical behavior and crimes, many undeterred by the possibility of detection. And they have at times been able to get away with their actions in a solid stance of denial, resorting to "my word against yours" debates. Governments have been able to deny body counts and the presence of uprisings by controlling media channels and access.

And surely false, vengeful, fabricated evidence spread quickly through social media has plagued the innocent, spurring on rumors and allegations, claiming proof of malicious untruths to ruin careers, relationships, lives. A new "revenge porn" site features naked photos of jilted lovers posted to the person's social networking sites. My friend Elizabeth says the possibility of widespread digital reach in the hands of those without conscience or discernment is akin to "giving machine guns to monkeys."

But there may be a bright side to the ubiquitous possibility of being discovered, exposed and outed for our deeds. It may well force a new stage of ethical enlightenment. Perhaps we will behave less badly and with better judgment for fear of going viral. The chance of a misdeed tweeted to a cast of thousands may serve as a deterrent.

In the end, will then social media make us better people? Or just worse liars?

I am not naive enough to believe the threat of being caught can eliminate deceit. Certainly there will continue to be those who say they did not send the text, someone else tweeted the missive, that is not me in the photo or on the video. There will always be those who operate outside the norms of polite, civil or legal behaviors, regardless of possible consequence. And they will continue to dodge the truth. But chances are with the pervasive reach of social media they may not be successful.

In the classic futuristic work 1984, George Orwell's vision of Big Brother was frightening, damning and a precursor to cultural paranoia. Instead I would like to view social media not as an evil voyeur but as a vehicle to moderating honesty. You might as well follow the rules, behave as expected, avoid committing the wrong. Because even though it's a catchy advertising campaign designed to make millions of tourists believe what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas, it really never does.

 

Follow Michele Weldon on Twitter: www.twitter.com/micheleweldon