Originally published in The Huffington Post
Riding an Amtrak train from Washington D.C. to New York City, Michael Hayden was giving interviews to reporters using his cell phone regarding national security related matters. In three different conversations, the former NSA head voiced numerous criticisms of the Obama administration, including the president’s use of a Blackberry, which he believed left the president vulnerable to foreign spying. These criticisms were supposed to be anonymous, with Hayden requesting that he be identified as a former senior administration official. Others overheard the conversations and tweeted about them.
On the same recent day, photos surfaced of Maryland’s Attorney General and gubernatorial candidate, Douglas F. Gansler, apparently turning a blind eye to underage drinking during his son’s senior beach party. Gansler found himself facing charges of hypocrisy given his official capacity of preventing law-breaking.
Michael Chertoff, the former head of the Federal Homeland Security Department, used these examples to ask “Where does this lead us? If a well-known person has an argument with a spouse or child at a restaurant, should it be broadcast? If a business personality expresses a political opinion at a private party, should that opinion (or a distortion of it) be passed on to the rest of the world? …” He concluded by wondering if we “Are we creating an informant society, in which every overheard conversation, cellphone photograph or other record of personal behavior is transmitted not to police but to the world at large? Do we want to chill behavior and speech with the fear that an unpopular comment or embarrassing slip will call forth vituperative criticism and perhaps even adversely affect careers or reputations?”
The answer to these questions, by and large, ought to be: What you see here is that the social media is restoring a measure of the informal communal pressures that long kept civil societies — civil. Traditionally we lived in small communities, in which people were aware of the behavior of others and gossiped about it, non-stop, chiding inappropriate conduct and lauding commendable acts. The resulting informal social pressures sufficed to lead most people most of the time to “behave” and hence minimized the role of the police, courts, and jails.
True, in the old days these social pressures could go much too far. They were very hard on people who dissented or followed what the community considered “deviate” behavior. These days, in most parts of the United States, we face the opposite problem: Communities have grown so weak, as Robert Putnam demonstrated with a mountain of data in his famous book Bowling Alone. As a result we rely more and more on coercive means to keep social order rather than on informal, soft communal pressures.
The good news is that social media is restoring some of these communal bonds. Michael Hayden is likely to be more circumspect in his public discussions of sensitive matters — precisely because his discretions were spread nationwide and mocked by comedians. Douglas F. Gansler is more likely to discharge his duties than to ignore violations of the law when they stare him in the face — for the same reasons. Kids are learning that baring it all on Facebook or sexting is not a good idea. My students worry about what their future employers will Google. These pressures are not strong enough to stop anyone who wants to advocate dissent — see the Tea Party, or follow an alternative life style, which leads them to join different social media groupings. But these social media give people a pause, often a good one.
Like all good things — from meds to chocolate (my downfall) — communal pressures the social media help revive can grow excessive when one overdoses on them. Bullying is a case in point. However, social media helps us learn about it, long before we see what happens in the school’s backyard. And, here too the famous principle applies — the best cure for wrong speech is more speech. Social media is the main place we discuss what are excessive and inappropriate communications and what might be done to counter them.