Reality gets filtered through and echo chamber
Today’s Farmer has a modest space burrowed in the wilds of social media. We’re on Facebook at www.facebook.com/todaysfarmer. Tending to that space puts an editor in the daily swirl of his New Media editorial brethren, which is to say, everyone.
According to the site’s published statistics, there are more than 500 million active users on Facebook, half of whom log onto the site any given day. The average user there has some 130 “friends.” And, in aggregate, Facebook users spend 700 billion minutes per month on the site.
That’s a lot of status updates and baby pictures to get through. But if you spend much time on social media, you’ll notice some users drift away from informing friends about the comings and goings of their day-to-day life and begin taking up a cause. The saturation of social media means the age of personal politics is equipped to reached its zenith. When everyone is a publisher, everyone has a platform to drub each other with individual recipes for a better society, planet and universe.
In the days after the massive tsunami and catastrophe at Japan’s Fukushima nuclear plant, some folks who’d been posting fun-times pictures, in-the-know jokes and general inanity on Facebook switched to full-throated anti-nuclear pamphleteering.
Now, as a clacker of computer keys who delivers a front-of-the magazine editorial each month, I’m in favor of opinionated hacks. But something about the reaction to the Fukushima incident emphasized a vague thought I’ve been harboring about social media and the public’s evolving perception of risk.
If you drove a front-end loader through the headlines of the past 10 years, you’d push up a pile of worries. Think of it: Bird Flu, MRSA, SARS, BSE, H1N1 influenza, MMR vaccine, and, most recently, radiation escaping from damaged nuclear plants. Taken in total, these phenomena didn’t yield the massive disruption they once promised. But they did stir the social media sphere and launch an army of lay commenters each amplifying the other’s concerns about modernity.
Social media may not be the direct cause, but it is a barking symptom and an accelerant of a culture of fear that our governing class not only can’t ignore, but is happy to accommodate instead of attending to more tedious matters such as fiscal management and long-term energy security.
Bill Durodié, a professor who specializes in studying risk management has delivered reams of advice to various universities and management schools, especially since Sept. 11, 2001. He penned the following paragraph prior to social media’s true proliferation, but the idea seems pertinent to this discussion. It’s from a paper entitled The Concept of Risk:
Focusing on people’s perceptions has become the new mainstay of governments, activists, the media and even risk consultants. These suggest that our perceptions of risk are as important—if not more so—than the actuality of the risks we face, as perceptions often determine behavior. Thus, it is held, that irrespective of the basis for such fears in scientific fact, their effects are real in social consequence, leaving governments with little choice but to take such concerns on board and to regulate accordingly.
It’s the old perception-is-reality saw. The trouble today is that the evolution of news into a 24-7 cycle that’s amplified by hundreds of millions in the social media sphere delivers notions of doom more quickly than they can be dispelled, or indeed, approached by regulation. In the same paper, Durodié wrote:
The more such concerns are highlighted, the more it becomes impossible for the authorities to satiate the insecurities they create. Hence, alongside disengagement and alienation, has come a concomitant disillusionment and mistrust in all forms of authority, whether political, corporate or scientific, as these invariably fail to live up to new expectations. This catastrophic corrosion of trust—in outlook if not in practice—has facilitated the replacement of healthy skepticism with unthinking cynicism.
For agriculture, from atrazine and animal rights to C02 and phosphorous, that cynicism might be a game changer. When the cynic’s perception is treated as reality, reason and science (and traditions of law such as the notion of liberty and property rights) are damaged.
But sometimes the antidote is a small dose of the poison. If you don’t ply the waters of social media, it might be time to start. Your perception can at least compete for the public’s reality.