Last week, while participating in a UNESCO conference on the Information Society and its challenges in Paris, I was asked to reflect on online comments and the disturbing phenomena of bad-mouthing and hate speech.
After a period of open approach, in the name of freedom of speech, Sweden and other countries are now evolving toward more restrictions; editors are taking steps ranging from harsher moderation to closing down the comments forums altogether.
The polite explanation for this evolution is that media executives are acting on an altruistic urge. They do not wish to contribute to the creation of a more segregated society, nor do they want their carefully constructed arenas to be soiled by extremist opinions.
The more realist version: They have concluded that welcoming anyone onto their platforms hurts their brands.
Recent research reveals that readers tend to mix up editorial content and comments. Hate speech in the comments section below an article seems to taint the overall experience, strengthening preconceived ideas and prejudice in the audience.
By closing down previously open platforms, your editors will get criticised, and the anonymous crowd will brand the move as “censorship.” Freedom of speech and the press, however, never meant allowing everyone to say whatever they want. Mass publication means power – and with power comes responsibility.
Throughout his successful career, business guru Warren Buffett has often stressed the importance of posing the right questions. Here’s my attempt to do the same:
- How can legacy media leverage the fantastic power of open platforms, working with the crowd without being taken hostage by anti-democratic elements?
- Is there a way of doing it while simultaneously enhancing your brand?
Let’s start to explore possible answers.
In an earlier blog post, “Turn your consumers into prosumers,” I stressed the need for long-term relationship-building. To be successful in this endeavour, you need to find the customers’ cravings — and propose ways of fulfilling them.
In a world of self-publishers, where billions of beginners now are in charge of sharp, mass-publication tools, one of the greatest needs out there is education. Every single human being has to become a competent communicator in this exploding information society. And fast. Or at least learn how to avoid hurting fellow citizens.
Every day, on different social media platforms, we experience the results of poor ethics and non-existing impact analysis. People living under witness protection programmes have their covers blown when someone uploads a graduation picture on Facebook. Abuse victims are found by the abusers they are hiding from when naïve tweeps inadvertently identify their whereabouts.
The crowd is not as wise as it could be. The greatest need out there at present is education.
Or let me change the semantics. Let me teach you a more nuanced Swedish term: “folkbildning.” You have already heard of “ombudsman” and “smorgasbord.” It’s time to add “folkbildning” to your vocabulary.
Perhaps I am opening myself to criticism by trying to define it, but the approximate meaning of the word is the broad, long-term educational process aimed at lifting competence in the entire population in a way that strengthens the community.
Yes, it is digital “folkbildning” we need.
Legacy media has an parallelled opportunity to strengthen their position. They have knowledge, experiences, and competences that took more than 100 years to gather. This knowledge bank must urgently be distributed to all the debuting self-publishers out there, to rendering the unintentionally irresponsible responsible.
We need to teach every community member the three Cs that are pillars of professional publishing ethics:
- Critical thinking.
Strengthening community competence and awareness is not only a good deed. It is a great business opportunity. And a relationship builder. No bond is stronger than the one you bind while learning together.
If we educate the community, if we let people in on our quest for a better society, if we teach them the tricks of the trade and share our experiences – we not only build a stronger relationship with our audiences that will help our striving business survive. We also build a better world.