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Social media

Technology is a useful servant, but we can’t let it master us or our children

Leonard Cheng says that educators have a responsibility to train children to be conscientious users of technology, particularly social media, to protect them from overuse, false information, echo chambers and social division

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 13 February, 2018, 10:40am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 13 February, 2018, 10:40am

Technology can be a good servant, but a bad master. The age of instant everything is upon us, as the internet gives us unprecedented connectivity and freedom of information. Our world is one of instant messaging and instant response, instant gratification and instant solace. No educator can ignore the hold of social media on the younger generation.

But such power and promise comes with its own perils. Social media has totally altered the way we communicate. It can bring people together, but also divide a community and magnify its differences. It is a domain where users are not bound by traditional rules, and where it is difficult if not impossible to distinguish reality from myth.

The events of the last two years, including Brexit, Donald Trump’s election and the alleged kidnapping of Howard Lam Tsz-kin in Hong Kong, show how difficult it is to navigate a world dominated by “fake news”. We are increasingly vulnerable to information manipulation by those who care little for the truth. The problem is so prevalent that Oxford Dictionaries declared “post-truth” the international word for 2016. The era of “post-truth” is one in which emotion and personal belief, instead of facts, form the basis for shaping public opinion, making it hard to tell fact from fiction, or rational conclusion from opinion.

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Cyberspace can be a place of great cruelty, in which people say hurtful things, magnify and spread the hurt without personal accountability. Populist movements that ride the crest of the internet are not known for their thoughtfulness or civility.

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Overreliance on social media plus lack of vigilance about the nature of information has created numerous “information bubbles” and “echo chambers”, in which people hear what they want to hear. They are immune to criticism or alternative views.

Thanks to Trump, “fake news” has been named by Collins Dictionary as the 2017 word of the year. Pope Francis waded in, soberly dedicating 2018 World Communications Day to the topic of “fake news”. In the UK, the government has decided to go after the tech giants, Google and Facebook included, and is considering how to hold them responsible as news publishers rather than communication platforms. Individual smartphone users, if not vigilant, may unknowingly spread rumours and divide their community.

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The US Senate is trying to get public funding to examine the role and impact of electronic media on children’s development. Earlier this month, a new think tank, the Centre for Humane Technology, was launched in the US by former senior executives and leading technologists of the tech giants to counter the risk of technology “hijacking our minds and society”.

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The educator has cause for concern over how information is disseminated. In the United States, 23 per cent of adults share sensational fake news, knowingly or unknowingly. As one of the world’s hyper-connected cities, is Hong Kong any better? With large swathes of the younger generation hooked on social media, educators ought to be worried about cognitive blind spots, extreme views and a retreat from face-to-face interactions, with a propensity towards belief in conspiracy theories.

The fear is that the reach and immediacy of social media will encourage the eavesdropper and the peeping Tom in us, feeding the tabloid instincts in users. The tool of people empowerment too often becomes a blunt instrument for intimidating opponents.

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Unfortunately, the law always lags behind the pace of technology. In the West, there is a tug of war between the protection of personal privacy and the need to prevent the abuse of networking platforms. Institutions of higher education must take the lead in debating and formulating the ethical norms that should govern digital communication while protecting huge amounts of personal data that are being harvested and exploited by tech giants.

More importantly, our students need to learn how to discipline themselves to spend more time meaningfully offline, and to remain sceptical about questionable information (as school students in Italy are being taught to do) and make informed judgements in the digital age, before the technological servant turns into an uncontrollable monster.

Leonard K. Cheng is president and chair professor of economics at Lingnan University