Now that comparative calm has returned to the streets of our major cities, the process of reflection and rationalisation is well underway. Initial unity and political solidarity in the face of lawlessness starts to fracture into recrimination, blame and thoughts of re-election.
Of most interest is the way the mainstream media have tackled the question of social media and, in particular, Twitter (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-14490693). This is how history is written. The process of taking first hand accounts, documentary evidence and physical traces and starting to meld them into an accepted, official, narrative.
Whilst there seems to be a widespread feeling that somehow social media are to blame, or fuelled the fires of discontent, in fact, it’s quite possible that the answer is more simple than that: that many people have lost the ability to critically assess sources of information and make informed judgements based upon them. The issue may be less that people choose to Tweet that Portsmouth is on fire, but more that people take this Tweet as fact and reproduce it accordingly, unquestioningly.
It may be true that social deprivation and poverty have fuelled the problems, but it’s equally true that educational poverty has spread them further. It feels increasingly as thought mainstream programming is ‘broadcast’ in the truest sense of the word, that we are not expected to consume it critically, but rather to take it as gospel truth. Whilst historically we would seek out the truth, it feels as thought now it is presented to us with it’s own catchphrase and jingle.
The fundamental skills that any undergraduate should master, the ability to work with multiple sources of information, to assess the validity and reliability of data, the ability to discriminate between opinion and fact, qualitative and quantitative sources has fallen largely by the wayside.
For me, the issue is not the messages that are being broadcast, but rather the skill with which we consume them.
One thing we know with absolute certainty is that technology has broken down the barrier between author and publisher. We can all produce content, with concurrent loss of the quality assurance gateway that used to fall between us and the reader. On the one hand, this leads to a wealth of poor quality materials, but on the other, it also leads to a smaller volume of exceptional ones, which may never have existed otherwise.
In a world with an ever greater amount of speculation and retweeting, critical skills of consumption are ever more important. In a world where bite sized nuggets of information are pushed directly to my phone, it’s essential to realise that these are just the sources that i must use to build my own truth. They are not, in themselves, true.
Talk about ‘turning off Twitter’ during times of social unrest is great as a soundbite, but worthless in real terms (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-14485592). The messenger is not the message. If messages aren’t Tweeted, they will go on Facebook, email or the phone. Sure, you can disrupt the speed of communication, but not for long. The question of critical reasoning remains.
And this is true outside the troubled streets of Britain. For any online experience, within any Community of Practice, any E-Learning or Forum, we need to develop and consider the skills required for critical consumption. Just because it’s in black and white text, doesn’t mean it’s true.