Illustration: Liu Rui/GT
I was present at the Yaroslavl Forum in Russia years ago, and a number of politicians, including then Russian president Dmitry Medvedev, brought up the negative effects of self-media, or we-media, on society. They noted that the information spread by self-media has perplexed the government and society, negatively affecting social solidarity and even threatening social stability. Some politicians even speculated that if this goes on, it may lead to the decay of human civilization.
Interestingly, some influential scholars on international relations at the forum were not interested in the concerns of these politicians, only focusing on their own agendas.
From my point of view, the decay of the civilization that concerns politicians can be interpreted as follows.
First, the spread of non-professional and fake information. As we-media has emerged and become important, massive amounts of non-professional and false information has hence been spread and even tends to overwhelm professional voices. This was unimaginable when elites controlled the media and a high bar was set by high costs. Gresham's law that bad money drives out good is gradually taking effect in the development of self-media.
Discussions over genetically modified (GM) food are an example. GM food is supposed to be a cutting-edge scientific issue, but a large amount of information about the topic comes from non-professionals, and as a result, facing overwhelming pressure from public opinion, professionals are quite cautious and even choose to keep silent on the issue. This goes against the development of science and technology. While science and technology becomes increasingly complicated and professionally segmented, the public often gets information from nonprofessionals. Frankly speaking, succinct and concise views from non-professionals are better understood and accepted by a public that has little professional knowledge.
Second, the spread of negative information and sentiments. In traditional mass communications, including family and school educational systems, negative information and sentiments are strictly restricted and even prohibited. But the era of self-media has liberated negative messages, which have become a significant part of self-media communications and cannot be put under effective control.
Since our childhood, parents and teachers criticize us for negative sentiments, and encourage us to be more positive and forward-looking. But self-media, together with the anonymous nature of online communications, has given rise to different complaints in society.
It is natural to have and vent negative sentiments in our personal and societal life. But it is inappropriate to spread negative information on social media platforms.
Third, the spread of extremism and extreme sentiments. Since the emergence of the state, extremism has been strongly rejected and controlled by leaders and mainstream society, and the spread of extremism is regarded as social crisis. But extremism and extreme sentiments have found channels to disseminate in the era of we-media, and sometimes even pose a challenge to the mainstream ideology and social order.
Extremists' and even terrorists' use of social media platforms to expand their clout is now a problem facing the whole world. Although a number of factors have contributed to the emergence and spread of extremism, self-media's role in the dissemination of extreme sentiments and remarks cannot be overlooked. It seems radical ideas can attract more attention on social media platforms. The "eyeball economy" is functioning as an engine for the spread of extreme sentiments and remarks in the era of self-media.
The above three problems emerged with the rise of we-media, and have become increasingly uncontrollable in the era of self-media. Some politicians have already sensed this trend, and regard it as an unprecedented threat and challenge to the social order and even human civilization. Their concerns deserve our attention.
The author is director of the Institute of Political Science at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. email@example.com