Warrane College UNSW | college accommodation for students at UNSW
Warrane College UNSW | college accommodation for students at UNSW

NSW Chief Justice – will Social Media threaten civilisation?

The Honourable Thomas Bathurst

The Chief Justice of New South Wales, The Honourable Thomas Bathurst, drew attention to possible long-term threats to Western civilisation posed by online social media when he delivered the 2012 Warrane Lecture on Wednesday, November 21.

Chief Justice Bathurst said the world is “undeniably being changed by social media”, but on the whole present indications suggested that it was taking place “on a more modest scale than many seem to think”.

Nevertheless, he said he had real concerns about the possible impact of some online developments. He examined this impact in relation to three fundamental aspects of civilisation: democratic governance, property rights, and “the all important rule of law”.

The Chief Justice defined social media as any media service that defies the traditional one-way model of distribution and consumption. “With social media, content is not merely consumed by users, it is also created, organised and distributed by them,” he said.

Examples included services like Twitter, Reddit, Facebook, YouTube, Google and Wikipedia. He included Reddit and Google because he said their method of sorting and presenting information is “fundamentally social”.

Looking at the impact of social media on democracy, he said it was generally thought to have an impact in two ways: first, by “creating a global egalitarian space in which information is democratically created and shared”, and second, by its role in actual political democratic processes.

While it was often assumed that social media is an inherently democratic platform, creators of the content were, generally speaking, “members of a fairly small and homogenous group”. For instance, in any given social forum most of the content was generated on average by only one per cent of users with most other users being considered as “lurkers”. In the case of Wikipedia, while half a billion unique users accessed the encyclopedia each month, only 77,000 individuals regularly created or edited content – only 0.001 of one percent of users.

On the whole, social media had failed to create a true “global village”. Access required a computer and an internet connection, which excluded approximately 65 per cent of the world that is not online: “Of the online population, between 63 and 75 per cent are located in the developed world.”

Most people online were also failing to talk to one another across traditional borders and boundaries. On average, only 10 to 15 per cent of a Facebook user’s friends were located in other countries.

“Along with geographic borders come legal, cultural and language barriers that are not broken simply because social relationships and content move online,” the Chief Justice said.

English was the dominant global second online language in part because it is an access point for more than half of all online content, including social media. This was despite the fact that only 27 per cent of internet users speak English as a first language.

“This suggests that far from creating a democratic, global conversation, the internet is dominated by content created in the English-speaking developed world,” he said. “In other words, those unpleasant connotations of Western civilization – imperial domination and colonisation – are very much alive and well online. We are not a global village – not yet.”

Chief Justice Bathurst said he was not convinced that social media were impacting on actual, political democratic processes in a way that was changing the nature of democracy “in the United States, or anywhere else”.

Nevertheless, it appeared that social media was challenging the traditional role of journalism and therefore had the potential to threaten an institution essential to modern democracy: the free press.

“Traditional news media – newspapers, radio and network news – are failing to secure sufficient advertising revenue to stay in business, in part because social media content aggregators like Google are able to distribute content and collect advertising revenue without having to invest in creating the content,” he said.

“…While it is easy to say that news media will, as with all other things, simply adopt and adapt, there does seem to be a real threat that established journalistic ethics are being corroded.

“Personal privacy, national security and even the administration of justice have all been threatened by the publication of sensitive information by social media users who are not bound by journalistic ethics. The scandal and furore surrounding WIkileaks is one obvious example.”

While for the most part he did not see social media as posing a serious threat, nor a serious democratising force, he the health of the free press did seem at the moment to be in jeopardy and this was not something to be “taken lightly or for granted”.

“If nothing else, the impact of social media on the press has caused independent, often publicly funded, media, such as we have in Australia, to become all the more important,” he said.

Looking at the question of the impact of social media on a “stable system of property rights”, the Chief Justice said he was referring to a system in which “the rules of property ownership and use are well known and protected and there is general agreement as to what can, and cannot, constitute property”.

“Our relationships, likes, dislikes and hobbies are generally not considered property, and are not things we readily ascribe monetary value to,” he said. “In my inquiry, I have come to form the opinion that social media is quietly increasing the number of things in our lives that are proprietary, while at the same time amalgamating ownership of those things in fewer and fewer hands.”

Through legal contracts with users, social networking providers were creating and assigning property rights in things we do not traditionally think of as proprietary.

“Your personal information, photos and videos, your network of friends, even your likes and dislikes are now valuable commodities,” he said. “In other words, you are the owner, but the default setting is that Facebook can use it…

“Unless you amend your privacy settings specifically, if you ‘like’ a brand or product, your name and profile can be used in connection with it.”

The Chief Justice said what was of concern to him was the way these conditions implicitly make our personal information, privacy and social networks, proprietary.

“Your social network is now something you own; as opposed to simply enjoy. I am also not saying that this is a bad thing; what concerns me is that it is happening by default. I don’t know what the implications might be of a society in which all of our memories, relationships and experiences are comodified – but I know that it will be different to the society we are living in now, and that we are heading in that direction seemingly without much dialogue as to whether it is the direction in which we want to head.”

The other half of the “proprietary coin” was, that as our social lives moved online, the digital space we occupy was not owned by us.

“The internet doesn’t have public roads, squares or parks. It has the digital equivalent of shopping malls: pleasantly controlled environments that mimic public space – but which, make no mistake, are not.”

Unlike the situation in a real public space, the actions of the enforcers were not subject to external review. There was no right to participation.

“Pseudo-public cyberspace is governed not by civic rights, but by the proprietary and contractual rights and obligations of the owners. Popular conceptions of the internet and social media as a ‘public commons’ or ‘global village’ therefore do not match the reality that the vast majority of social media is privately held and regulated…

“The pseudo-public social media space that we inhabit is increasingly designed by service providers and advertisers to target each of us individually based on data derived from our personal details and social networks.”

The information collected by services like Google was used to determine which paid advertising we see. “Similar manipulation is used to suggest friends for you on Facebook, and to determine the advertising you are subjected to on most other social media services…

“Unlike a book, newspaper or TV show that must deliver the same content to everyone, the content I access online is partially pre-determined for me based on my history and social networks. I am liable, therefore, to more readily encounter those who agree with me, and also to have a skewed perspective on what the world outside my window looks like. My ability to freely form opinions and make choices about what I consume and who I vote for, for example, is being subtly undermined.”

Chief Justice Bathurst summed up his thoughts on social media’s impact on our stable system of property rights, and civilization generally, by asking his listeners to “stretch your imaginations to consider whether a world in which your memories and friendships are commodities, public space is a distant memory, and your exposure to the outside world is subtly tailored by the owners of pseudo-public space to reflect your past behaviour and preferences”.

He asked them to consider whether such a world could be the same as the world we live in today. “I truly do not know the answer.”

[Warrane College offers more than just accommodation to students at UNSW: Details of other guest speakers are available here]