Last year's Arab Spring provided a dramatic lesson in the power of social media to spark dramatic change. In Egypt, for example, Twitter served as a potent weapon for those seeking to overthrow an authoritarian ruler. Their ability to communicate with each other and the rest of the world enabled a small protest to go viral and topple the Mubarak regime.
This spring, a Web petition on Change.org urging the arrest and trial of George Zimmerman in relation to the death of Trayvon Martin got more than two million signatures and put intense pressure on Florida state officials to investigate the case. Zimmerman was ultimately arrested.
Most see these as positive examples of how to enable everyday citizens to confront elites, call attention to issues that are being ignored, and force action to ensure justice. Social media, in this view, represent a necessary antidote to the concentration of power and the control of agendas by those with more access and resources. There is no denying that sometimes this is indeed the case. Sometimes, the crowd gets power and gets it right.
Social media, however, can also exert power and get it wrong. They have perpetuated, for example, the canard that Barack Obama is not a U.S. citizen and that he is a Muslim. There are few, if any, filters on most social media sites to screen out wrong information, blatant prejudice, or to identify the backgrounds and agendas of those who seek viral support for their causes. Wikipedia, which has an established process to check facts and allow verification and change, is the exception, not the norm. Most social media options are aimed not at testing the veracity of what is posted or preventing ill use of the medium but at enabling advocacy of a position -- often treated as unquestionable truth by those who post it.
Caveat emptor, which in cyberspace we can read as "user beware," seems the key source of protection from the potential for harm. The defense most often cited is that free access and the free flow of information will, in the end, serve the cause of truth. But that is a philosophy not a method. In the Trayvon Martin petition, people were asked to sign demanding not only that authorities "investigate my son's murder" but that they "prosecute George Zimmerman for the shooting and killing of Trayvon Martin." In short, the petitioners were asked to assume that the evidence (at least the evidence floating freely in cyberspace) was sufficient to bring Zimmerman to trial, even though the general public lacked access to all the evidence and lacked the technical and legal sophistication to make careful judgments about what steps were most appropriate. This is not to argue that Zimmerman is innocent. That, thankfully, will be decided by a jury. It is to argue that we have a legal system to decide whether sufficient evidence exists to justify arrest and trial. Doing so by the force of public opinion seeks to substitute passionate belief for reasoned deliberation.
The framers of our Constitution, who of course could not have anticipated social media, were nonetheless worried about the tyranny of the majority that social media enables. They understood that passions often overtake reason and that, when everyone has a vote (physical or viral), there are few antidotes to majority rule, even when the majority is wrong and restricts liberty. For this reason, they often equated "democracy" with "mob rule" and feared it.
Thankfully, their overly narrow (not to mention racist and sexist) view of who should vote could pass neither the test of time nor the need to be faithful to their own founding values. But the worry they had is nonetheless real. Passion unconstrained by reason is dangerous.
Making our 18th century charter and its underlying values work in the far more democratic -- and increasingly viral -- 21st century requires that we assume increased responsibility with the increased power that social media give us. We need to learn -- and teach our children -- how to question what we see in cyberspace. We need to remember -- and teach our children -- that passionate belief in positions must not override reasoned analysis of them. We need to understand -- and help our children understand -- that what we "know" is colored by our assumptions and prejudices and that we should approach the use of power with humility. We need to recall -- and ensure our children infuse -- our founding values in our viral democracy.