Does social media represent an opportunity for those outside elite corridors of power and influence to give voice to world affairs? Can 140 characters deliver objective reporting? Should news outlets regard social media updates as facts?
On Wednesday, March 13, Rudra Sil, University of Pennsylvania professor of political science and co-director of the Huntsman Program in International Studies & Business, tackled these questions in the annual McSwain-Walker Lecture sponsored by the Reves Center for International Studies.
Sil delivered his multimedia presentation, “When More is Less: Is the Global Diffusion of Social Media Clouding Our Vision of World Affairs?” to an audience of William & Mary faculty, staff, students and local community members, before spending an additional hour with students continuing the conversation.
“The global diffusion of social media in the post-Cold War era has enabled much faster flows of images and information within and across national borders,” explained Sil. “This is generally seen as having a positive effect on peace, democracy and harmony worldwide.”
Yet in examining the proliferation and use of a range of social media platforms such as Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and Instagram by anyone with an internet connection, Sil questioned the ability of these new forms of media to connect folks across the world.
“We need to have a more sober approach to the ‘transformative’ nature of social media,” he cautioned. “We need to watch out for blind spots in modern communication technology.”
Sil explored the role of social media in helping to shape world narratives surrounding the events of the Arab Spring, electoral fraud in Iran and Russia, and the Georgia-Russian crisis of 2008.
He argued that rather than representing the truth of these events, social media can present a “politics of familiarity,” in which social media amplifies people’s inclinations to identify with experiences and others who conform to established patterns of thinking.
“The initial burst of information tends to be transmitted by those who possess English language skills and have easy access to more social media outlets,” said Sil. “It is their views that often disproportionately shape the first impressions among American audiences.”
For government and sociology double major Alex Mills ’15, Sil’s talk and cautious tone resonated with her work investigating the role of traditional and social media shaping domestic policy.
“Lots of focus has been put on the impact of social media,” Mills said. “Dr. Sil’s talk showed that traditional media still counts.”
Government major Connor McCann ’13 felt the lecture helped him think more critically about social media.
“With social media, you take all the good effects but you must keep in mind the potential downside,” McCann said. “Dr. Sil demonstrated how quickly public opinion solidifies.”