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Graduates warned of internet’s double-edged sword of transgression

Media expert Carmen Sammut: ‘We’re living in the age of transgression where the unconventional thinker can freely question the mechanisms of power and challenge the status quo. On the other hand, we are also extremely vulnerable because our reputation is in fact exposed to great risks’

matthew_vella
Matthew Vella
26 November 2014, 4:30pm
Search histories of people taking to the Internet to find answers to questions and anxieties, likes and dislikes, are being stored and then sold to commercial and political users to the detriment of individuals’ anonymity.
Search histories of people taking to the Internet to find answers to questions and anxieties, likes and dislikes, are being stored and then sold to commercial and political users to the detriment of individuals’ anonymity.
Carmen Sammut
Carmen Sammut
Media expert Carmen Sammut called on university graduates to be masters of their digital fates, and not slaves to gadgets and ignorant of the threat to privacy the Internet can pose.

In her academic oration to graduates of the University of Malta, Sammut – a former journalist who cut her teeth in the era of telex machines and typewriters – spoke of the glut of information made possible by the Internet and the challenges it poses for privacy and reputation.

“Some still insist that intellectuals should keep a critical distance from mundane discussions on the social media, but is this still a feasible endeavour?” she asked.

“We all know that we are competing with the social media for students’ attention. I do not rule out that as I speak, some of you are enjoying a more gratifying encounter with friends outside these walls. In all spheres of life we often sense that we are in direct competition for attention. Meaningful communication is frequently frustrated by the ‘noise’ emanating from distracting technologies. Yet the social media offer endless possibilities which we may positively embrace to kindle the proverbial flame.”

But Sammut warned that both ‘digital natives’ born in the era of social media and digital immigrants like her face a problem of how to protect privacy on social media.

“Social media are known to have destroyed the reputation of individuals in cases of personal revenge. Sometimes it is people who are nearest to us who may hit closest to where it hurts. Loving partners tend to share everything but it is becoming evident that compromising pictures, passwords and PIN numbers should stay within our own control so that we protect ourselves in case things turn ugly.

“The protection of our privacy and reputation has much wider and more complex implications. A century and a half before the advent of the internet, the French political thinker Alexis de Tocqueville had predicted that despotism in modern democratic nations may assume different traits from that of tyrants. It would ‘be more extensive and more mild; it would degrade men without tormenting them’.  On the one hand, we are living in the age of transgression where the unconventional thinker can freely question the mechanisms of power and challenge the status quo. On the other hand, we are also extremely vulnerable because our reputation is in fact exposed to great risks.”

Sammut said that search histories of people taking to the Internet to find answers to questions and anxieties, likes and dislikes, are being stored and then sold to commercial and political users to the detriment of individuals’ anonymity.

And while she also gave credit to the social media that overthrew the monopoly of State-owned media during the Arab Spring, she expressed cautious skepticism of whether individuals were under the illusion that they can challenge structures of power and control.

“British author Natalie Fenton warned that social media users tend to drift from one issue to another without much commitment or with little time for reflection. Moreover, online activism can be illusive because it hardly ever leads to actual deliberative engagement.

“While the social media are wonderful tools for activists, activism must not be confined to virtual space. Online networking and awareness-raising are useful but as the old Elvis Presley song affirms: ‘We need a little less conversation, and a little more action’.”

And Sammut also pointed out the paradox of social media users who tend to participate in online discussions with people who hold comparable outlooks. “In online conversations the term ‘open minded’ has long altered its original meaning. Research has shown that people are not in fact too open to alternative viewpoints… As a result, virtual communities are fairly homogeneous in terms of values and opinions and it was stated that the internet is contributing to the so called ‘echo chamber effect’.  In this space we can hear the resonance of our own voice.

“Paradoxically, in the era of individualism, we seem to seek affirmation for some kind of collective identity with people sharing similar perspectives on politics, religion and lifestyle. The possibility to explore diverse opinions is there but we also need to be ready to step out of our comfort zone and to widen our horizons.”

matthew_vella
Matthew Vella is executive editor at MaltaToday.
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