Friday, January 15, 2016

The Pros and Cons of Social Media

Like most everything else, social media is a double-edged sword.  It has its good points and bad points.  Both revolve around the ability to instantly communicate opinions to a wide range of people.  I say opinions, because it would be hard to accuse social media of being unbiased and fact-based even at the best of times.

One positive is the ability to spread the word about products or services.  When consumers are dissatisfied, it has become very easy to spread the word, to alert friends and neighbors about a bad experience or to make recommendations.  This has become common and, if you are careful and understand that certain people are usually reliable while others easily fly off the handle at the slightest provocation, it can be quite helpful in making personal spending decisions.

I did pick up one watch-out from a couple of Health Digest articles (#15-49 and #15-51).  In both these cases vendors are trying to defend themselves against social media criticism.  In one case the Federal Trade Commission is going after a marketer of “alleged weight-loss supplements,” not only because of false claims about effectiveness about their high-price products, but also because of a gag clause in their Terms and Conditions, by which they “sued or threatened to sue consumers who shared their negative experiences online or complained to the Better Business Bureau.”  They also paid customers to appear in positive videos and to post positive reviews on line.

In the second case a New York City dentist “required new patients to sign a form called mutual agreement to maintain privacy giving up their right to criticize her publicly on the Internet and assigning to her the copyright for any material or comments that the patient might later write about her.  When a patient later complained over the Internet about overcharges, she claimed that the postings violated her copyright and demanded compensation until they were removed.  Courts have nullified both these sneaky attempts to silence criticism.

Communicating opinions of performance or customer service can be a good thing, but there is also a downside.  Social media can be used to whip readers into a frenzy about trivial things.  It takes so little effort to "like" or repost or sign a petition that (often unfounded or half-true) opinions and accusations spread like wildfire.

Examples like this appear in the media and on-line frequently, but take the case of a woman from Indianapolis who posted on Facebook how upset she was that someone in a bar where she was celebrating New Years had the nerve to have a heart attack and spoil the evening.  She complained of how traumatic it was for her, “having our meal ruined by watching a dead person being wheeled out,” and her post went on ranting.  The news was not limited to the Indy area.  It moved thousands of miles in an instant.  Here it is reported on a British website!

Unfortunately a woman with the same name, also living in Indianapolis began receiving “nasty messages on Facebook from all over the world.”  She described them as “disgusting, hateful," including death threats – from total strangers.  She was near calling the police before the confusion was cleared up.  But as this second woman put it, "She did something stupid. That's all. She had some bad behavior, [but] I don't think you deserve to die or be killed or choked or have a heart attack and there were a lot of pretty awful things that people said assuming I was that person."  People around the world read the story and took it upon themselves to administer “justice.”  Suddenly an insensitive post results in death threats; perfect strangers are out for blood.  Can you say “lynch mob”?

Now before I am accused of being a racist for that last remark and it goes viral on the Internet inciting a bunch of hate mail and death threats, let me point out: a) they also had lynch mobs in the wild west; b) the term was used figuratively; and c) it was given as a negative example.  Now you see how easily social media and other Internet sites can be used to stifle free speech with reactions far out of proportion to reality.  

In a sense it's ironic that the Internet, a media with the potential to enhance free speech, can be turned around to instantly threaten, censor or try to silence the writer over minor offenses, opinions that don't fit a particular world view or a word or phrase that happens to rub some unknown person the wrong way.

1 comment:

  1. Added on 1/18: Found a similar, "gag-clause" situation with the Pastoral Medical Association that offers licenses to Chiropractors to conduct sessions for private members. "It would be a breach of the membership agreement to complain to a State Medical Board, the FDA, Medicare, Medicaid or insurance companies without permission of the provider and the PMA."


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