Social Networking and Social Awareness: How Virality Affects People’s Behavior on New Information
This essay was submitted as an admission requirement for TU Munich in 2018. It is written around January 2018. I received admission from TUM although I did not take it since I received SECCLO scholarship.
I was thinking to send this to newspaper since this topic is really important in Indonesia nowadays, but I didn’t have the confidence. However, looking at what happened today in Indonesia, I decided to publish it in my blog, hoping that people will be more aware of this issue. And this even might be a good idea if I translate it to Bahasa Indonesia.
Social Networking Services (SNS) usage is rapidly growing globally since its introduction in early 2000, with approximately 14% increase of its user annually . In Indonesia itself, around 73% of internet users uses internet to access SNS . Despite of relatively low penetration of internet among the population, which is about 31%, this number is expected to rise in the coming years with the more accessible and affordable internet access available, following the global trend itself . With these numbers, the effect of social network within society is becoming more apparent. It is arguable whether social network brings a positive or negative impact. But in this essay, we will briefly discuss on how social media content circulating through SNS influences how people absorb and distribute information with examples on recent cases happened in Indonesia.
Douglas Rushkoff argued that media material can act like a Trojan horse, spreading without the user’s consent, passing hidden messages through the circulating content, similar like a virus . The notion “viral content” is becoming more common and widespread along with the growing of internet user. SNS provides easy content creation for its user which increases the number of user-generated content exponentially. Users also easily share contents between users even across different services since sharing content can be as simple as sharing URL, where the application automatically presents the title and preview of the content without requiring its user to access the URL directly.
Take a recent example of Balinese hotelier sexual harassment allegation that was brought up by New Zealand tourist via Facebook . This case went public attention just in a matter of hours. Interestingly, Indonesian public opinion became split whether the hotelier was really harassing the woman or was only a language barrier, emphasizing that he meant to say “voucher” . Local law enforcement took action by interrogating the alleged hotelier and he admitted that he said the explicit word. Despite that, several netizens were still strong in their opinion that the hotelier did not do harassment, which was also broadcasted by local popular musician and accepted by many of his followers .
The virality of social media through SNS is also a big potential medium for marketing purpose, not only for business marketing, but for a political campaign. Social media provides opportunities for low-cost political participation, from broadcasting information, coordination, mobilization, and formation of online political communities . Recent Indonesia political turmoil was also induced from social media activities, for instance, the 2014 presidential election or the recent Jakarta governor election, where SNS became a channel to distribute both positive and negative messages on the competing candidates.
A very prominent example is recent Basuki “Ahok” Tjahaja Purnama governorate campaign. This political event which began in “Teman Ahok” supporting the incumbent to run for second term as independent candidate  continued toward a discouraging hate-campaign which sparks a racial conflict raised by pro-Muslim-native groups . The latter events was initially induced by a circulated YouTube video consisting of Governor Basuki gave a controversial statement which interpreted by some as blasphemy. The protest was mobilized through social network and the topic remained strong within election period, circulating in social network as a black campaign.
Ahok v. Pro-Muslim-Native case might be just a tip of the iceberg. The worrying fact about how negative information spread sporadically through social networking is the increasing cases of extremist movement among the community. Social networking has now become a main channel to spread propaganda from radical movement to public. A diverse community like Indonesia, with a strong traditionalist-conservative community together with low education and economy level, is a prolific environment to spread propaganda against certain groups or government. In 2017, Government of Indonesia identified that Telegram service was used to spread ISIS ideology to the country . The culprit of recent attack in a church in Jogjakarta was also said that he learned extremist movements through video and articles spread online .
From cases discussed above, we can observe a visible impact on how social network affects people’s behavior in obtaining new information. Several scientific observations also has been conducted and reached similar conclusion, such as: “The mass adoption of online social networking systems has the potential to dramatically alter an individual’s exposure to new information,” a conclusion drawn by researchers from Facebook itself . Easier method to share content will drive people to introduce and spread new content regardless of the quality of the content itself. Simple content sharing can induce a heated discussion and debates which can lead to bigger social issues at later time.
Political movement and participation is also largely affected by social networking as it benefits the penetrative nature of information through social network. On the other hand, the risk of diminishing accuracy is also present by the increasing of hoax and propaganda news circulating among community, which we have to be wary of as it possesses an impending danger within the community. The social network algorithm which display information based on user’s interest is deemed contributing to this issues which creates what can be said as “algorithmic enclave”, a group of virtual community which consists of people with similar arguments to each other . This could amplify information and opinion, whether negative or positive, whichever relates with their previous opinion. This may be one of major causes of hoax and false speculation distribution among people with similar belief.
The authority is required to take imminent actions to control the information content circulating through social network. This action may be viewed as breach in freedom of speech and contradict with democracy. But certainly, false and hoax content cannot be let loose uncontrollable. Recently Indonesia police apprehended group of people who constantly produce and distribute hoax content . Indonesia is also operating a content control over internet content including negative and hate contents. Authorities also have to work closely with SNS companies to actively filter and moderate contents. More importantly, a long term action to ensure the sustainability of society in general is to educate people in internet awareness to improve the maturity of people to obtain information from internet.
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