Last week, Times Talk discussed the impact of social media in society. It is very important to have public debates on issues which are very much ingrained in the everyday interaction of many people.

The social media have undoubtedly facilitated communication in today’s society but there are important challenges associated with internet usage.

Some analysts of cyberspace consider it to have produced a new utopic sphere with increased freedoms. Others give more importance to ‘dark’ elements within it, such as increased State surveillance and personal addiction.

Optimistically speaking, people around the world have never had access to so much knowledge and information. People may educate themselves, may be in constant communication with others through chats and games and may also raise consciousness on issues they hold at heart.

In the cyberspace utopia, we may construct our identity in a pluralistic sphere which isn’t monopolised by one tyrannical voice.

Indeed, the internet can be an important tool of democratisation. Messages, symbols and statements are open to negotiation by internet users who are reflexive and, thus, critically able to agree or disagree with what they see on the screen.

From a political perspective, one can refer to protests around the world which were instantly on Twitter, Facebook and YouTube, such as those within the Arab Spring, Gezi Park in Turkey and the Occupy movement. In Malta, activists within different social movements, such as those dealing with sexual identity, the environment and disability, have broken quite a lot of barriers with their cyber-activism.

Bloggers are putting forward their point of view and an increased diversity of views is being exposed to the public. Mainstream and alternative media are interacting with each other and official narratives by the State are exposed to more counter-narratives and engagement.

From a pessimist point of view, however, there are various aspects of the cyberspace debate which merit much attention.To begin with, the talk of increased democracy, important as it is, requires engagement.

Just because bloggers, NGOs or musicians are posting their material online doesn’t necessarily meant they have guaranteed readership.

There may be too many articles, too many songs, too many tweets. While this does expose readers to increased sources of knowledge, it may also result in less focused readership, thus rendering the art of reading to a trivial scan of one-liner headings by individuals who are immersed in their own bubble.

Being reflexive beings, we may decide to switch off the internet when we really don’t need it and thus be in control

One may also refer to unreliable sources, false identities and misinformation. For example, should one replace expert medical advice with online medical solutions?

Within the political sphere, one cannot doubt the sensitising impact of cyber activism as in the examples I mentioned above. However, this does not guarantee political success. Democracy activists in Egypt, Turkey and Hong Kong know something about this.

State repression through the internet has become common despite the latter’s democratic potential. For example, activists may be constantly surveilled, traced or hacked. A repressive State may also do its utmost to censor ‘undesirable’ media. And big business – which has a huge role in cyberspace - may opt for increased profits rather than increased pluralism.

Some argue that the social media may result in social fragmentation and the ghettoisation of different voices. Instead of having true community development by means of social interaction and investment in social capital, one may simply have different groups which are simply preaching to the converted. For example, in recent referenda campaigns in Malta, there were equally large Facebook pages on either side, with not so much constrictive cross-debate between them.

Hence, one should not assume that the internet provides a quick-fix solution to our problems. The Żonqor Point development controversy will not be solved by Joseph Muscat’s exercise of online consultation for alternative sites but through an ever-growing social movement against ODZ development. The climate change issue will not be solved by increased awareness through the internet – important as this is – but through clear political deals and change in behaviour.

Finally, there are the perils of internet dependency in an interplay of opportunities and risks. What happens if information systems break down in essential sectors such as energy or health?

Similarly, are human beings becoming increasingly cyborg-like, given that, for many, the smartphone or tablet seems to be an extension of the body?

Indeed, cyberspace may be a secluded source of inclusion with online peer-groups and an anti-social ‘drug’ resulting in increased isolation from significant others such as family members.

Being reflexive beings, we may decide to switch off the internet when we really don’t need it and thus be in control. In the final instance, the internet is a tool which we may choose to assist us in our personal or societal development or which we may choose to become enslaved to. I hope that the latter option does not prevail.

Michael Briguglio is a sociologist.

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