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Opinion: The potential danger of social media

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While Student Senate President Nick Southall’s recent controversial tweet has gained criticism, it also serves to raise an important philosophical question.

Southall recently tweeted, “Driving through Athens at 8:30 on Sunday morning is hilarious. I want to stop every girl I see and say ‘your dress is a little wrinkly’.” He deleted his tweet shortly after posting it, but it was still seen by many students and fellow senate members who were upset at what they considered to be “slut-shaming.” Students spoke out at last week’s Student Senate meeting to express their concerns. But rather than addressing Southall himself, many students opted to look at the bigger picture and criticize the culture that the tweet represents. Southall did apologize and express his regret for the tweet.

In a time of tweets, posts, followers and a generation of young adults with cell phones implanted in their hands, social media has become a culture within itself. This widespread culture can, for the first time, give anyone and everyone a voice. Any person on any given moment can now convey a message, in under 140 characters, to hundreds, if not thousands, of people by just tapping on a screen. Social media users have that power, and it is power that should not be underestimated.

Southall had that power, and he abused it. But, in this instance, he should only serve as an example of how much power and influence a user can have bundled in one tweet. For instance, if someone in a less prominent position had tweeted the exact same message, it more than likely would not have gotten the same level of attention. However, there are still many people who could see that tweet and begin to think that this message about how to treat a woman is acceptable.

Essentially, Twitter and every other social media outlet has handed a megaphone to every person and said, “Say whatever you want, just keep it short.” In most situations, that is great. Citizens can exercise freedom of speech like never before, but there are people who use that freedom to spread harmful messages. There have always been those people; they just didn’t have megaphones before.

In his book Media Matters, John Fiske writes: “We can make our society one that is rich in diverse knowledges, but only if people strive to produce and circulate them. Technology will always be involved, and, if its potential is exploited, its proliferation may make the control over knowledge less, not more, efficient.” In spreading ideas that involve sexism, racism or are just damaging in general, the belief that these ideas are acceptable becomes more prevalent.

Social media can be a powerful tool and that tool can be abused in destructive ways, but what can be done about it? A possible, and likely the most prominent, answer to that question is controversial to say the least: police social media. Setting a precedent as to what is and is not acceptable to be said on social media could limit this abuse of power. It could be similar to the system several sites, such as YouTube and even Twitter, currently have, where a user can mark certain content as inappropriate. However, instead of allowing the content to be published and then later removed when deemed inappropriate, it would not be published to begin with.

This system would not come without a cost, and the cost would be a high one. Implementing a limit on what can be said on social media is a direct limit on free speech. Should all users forfeit one of their fundamental rights because of the words of a few? No. Freedom of speech must remain intact, even in a digital era.

The responsibility falls onto those who tweet, like, share, post and favorite. It is up to those posting to consider what is being said before it is publicly viewed. It is up to those speaking into the megaphone to think before they tweet.

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