WACC honorary member Dennis Smith says social media platforms have become an essential part of the communication infrastructure that they are "essentially, public utilities and therefore, must be held accountable. Photo: Contributed
Information manipulation or the so-called “weaponization of social media” has been the subject of many discussions and studies in recent years. Even military experts have weighed in, saying Facebook, Twitter and YouTube – which have transformed global politics – is now “the new battlefield.”
But Dennis Smith says this phenomenon is “hardly new.”
The “weaponization of information” can be traced to the “dissemination of slander and falsehood for commercial gain and political advantage as far back as the 19th century penny press in the U.S.,” writes Smith, WACC honorary life member and former WACC president (2008-2016).
The big difference, however, is that today’s deception “seems more widespread, more institutionalized, than ever,” Smith writes in The New Normal, published last year in Media Development, WACC’s quarterly journal. “Particularly galling is that deception so seldom brings recrimination upon the deceivers…Deception today, globalized through social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter, is different more in degree than in kind from that practiced throughout human history.”
The power and reach of Western media conglomerates, including Fox News and RT News has also meant that their “systemic lies” are spread far and wide, says Smith.
An honor graduate in speech communications at Wheaton College in Illinois, Smith has decades of experience as a communicator. He began his career in 1977 as a Presbyterian mission co-worker and communicator assigned to the National Evangelical Presbyterian Church of Guatemala. He was resource person to a committee that offered communication services to the southwest region of Guatemala. “We offered religious films to rural congregations and workshops on community radio and grassroots journalism,” he says in an email interview.
He also taught communication at the Presbyterian seminary. “Guatemala was at war at this time, and grassroots communication initiatives were seen as potentially subversive activities by the military. It was a complicated time!” WACC – at both the regional and global level – “became for me and my Guatemalan colleagues our professional network, our laboratory for continuing education service, and our connection with the broader world of communication, popular education and social change.”
Smith, now based in Buenos Aires – where he serves as Regional Liaison for South America for the Central American Evangelical Center for Pastoral Studies – remains as committed to WACC and its principles.
To that end, Smith writes in The New Normal that WACC must “discern together” what role it can play to address the phenomenon of media manipulation in today’s world.
He suggests, among other things, that since social media platforms have become an essential part of the communication infrastructure and like potable water, public sanitation and electricity are “essentially, public utilities,” they need to be held accountable. “The recent implementation of the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) by the European Union is one useful example of this,” he writes. “…Social media platforms should not be profiting from the massive dissemination of unsubstantiated rumors and lies.” He cautions, however, that“fake news” is a “more nuanced” matter that needs to be dealt with alongside freedom of expression issues.