Kick the question of online safety to a citizens’ assembly?

This post originally appeared in The Times (Ireland Edition), April 23rd 2019

Richard Bruton, the communications minister, announced the introduction of a new online safety act on March 4. No text was produced — not even the outline of a bill — but rather a six-week consultation period, which has just closed. This is the latest in a series of half-steps and U-turns by this government in attempting to regulate social media. There have been policy debates and action plans, but little actual legislation.

When it comes to online safety, two things are clear. On the one hand, “something must be done”. On the other, nobody knows quite what. A good start would be a commitment to social science research, and a substantial campaign to raise public awareness, but no politician is going to propose anything quite as boring, sensible and expensive as that.

Hildegarde Naughton, chairwoman of the communications committee, recently suggested that Facebook users prove their identity by supplying their PPS numbers to the social media giant. This misguided idea was shot down last year by no less than the taoiseach after it was proposed by Jim Daly, another Fine Gael TD.

Consequently, I do not hold out much hope for this Online Safety Act. Besides, even if it makes it out of the Oireachtas before the next election, legislating to remove content that is deemed harmful but not actually illegal seems likely to end up in the Supreme Court. Hence we will have many more years of unworkable kneejerk reactions, and lots more heavy lobbying.

My proposal, as submitted to the consultation, is simple. Online safety has been kicked into touch several times, so why not really put the boot in and kick it into the stand? Let’s have a citizens’ assembly. It worked for other tricky subjects.

The inherent focus of citizens’ assemblies has been citizens’ rights, which have been somewhat lacking in debates about “harmful content”. We should be asking how we can protect citizens from harm while upholding free expression.

A citizens’ assembly would let government bring in the global experts and have them explain the advantages and disadvantages of various solutions. It would also allow daft ideas to be forensically dissected, without the government having to entertain them for the benefit of tabloid sensationalism. Crucially, such a setting should allow for children’s voices to be heard. These were noticeably absent during the debate over the digital age of consent.

There is no shame in not being able to fix the internet. The real shame is the political prevarication.

Dr Ciarán Mc Mahon is author of The Psychology of Social Media, Routledge, €12.99

The Future of Social Media – Women in Media 2019, Ballybunion

I was honoured to be invited to participate in the fantastic Women in Media conference in Ballybunion, now in its seventh year.

The panel was chaired by Ciara Riordan, BBC Social News Editor, and my fellow panellists were Julia Ebner, Research Fellow at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, Jane Last, Head of News at Independent News and Media and Aisling Ryan, Geologist and Twitch Streamer.

Probably the most enjoyable panel I’ve been on in quite a while – hope it makes for entertaining viewing!

Writing ‘The Psychology of Social Media’

The Psychology of Social Media

Note: this piece first appeared on Routledge’s ‘The Psychology of Everything’ website – you can read more about the other books in the series there too. My book, ‘The Psychology of Social Media‘ is available to pre-order now and will be published on April 16th 2019. Click here to purchase on Amazon.

There is something slightly preposterous about writing a book with this title. Psychology and social media are such hard to define topics I often felt like I was trying to catch two clouds with one sieve.

Conceivably, the whole of human experience could have been included, along with the most popular technologies the world has ever seen. More to the point, both psychology and social media are topics about which practically every reader would have pre-conceived theories.

In that regard, I hope you will appreciate how I have worked to make scientific research on psychology and social media both accessible and interesting. This research, and hence this book, is ultimately about you, after all: your psychology, and your use of social media.

As a result, it was important for me to achieve a number of aims with this book. Firstly, I was at pains in the opening chapter to clarify precisely what it is about. So, I spent some time distinguishing ‘social media’ from ‘social networking site’ and ‘social network’. I also took the time to explain why it is important to separate psychology the academic discipline from psychology its subject matter – the psychology of psychology, as it were.

Secondly, I had to be clear that, given it was to be no more than 30,000 words long, this book was not going to be definitive. Any book on psychology or social media is necessarily going to be a kind of personal perspective, but particularly so in a short one. Hence, this was going to be a tasting menu, not a feast, and many dishes were left off the menu.

Whilst I am confident that I managed to fit in most of social media’s major concepts, I’m sure keen eyes may note omissions. I managed to cover identity construction, self-presentation, social capital, hyperpersonal communication, the privacy paradox, the Panopticon, Dunbar’s number, context collapse, online disinhibition, and presence. But I didn’t get to examine Metcalfe’s law, the small world problem, nor emotional contagion.

Similarly, while I covered #FreeAmina, the ice bucket challenge, the Twitter Joke Trial and ‘Weinergate’ as case studies, there were others I would have loved to include. I couldn’t find a place for the famous ‘Ed Balls’ tweet nor #hasJustinelandedyet nor indeed Samaritans Radar, nor the 2013 hack of the Associated Press’ Twitter account.

I did manage to talk about many concepts from internet culture, such as FOMO, subtweeting, fraping and memes. And while I discussed research on Myspace, Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, Reddit, Last.FM, YouTube, 4chan, Instagram, VK, Periscope, WeChat, and WhatsApp, I couldn’t find a place for LinkedIn or Second Life. I also thought that it was important to cover defunct social media services too, so I managed to cover Orkut, Friendster, Shox, and Meerkat, but would have liked to mention services like GeoCities, Vine, or

Which brings me to my third aim with this book. While writing it, I’ve tried to implicitly make the point that despite the fact that it’s been around for well over a decade, social media still feels ‘new’. It seems we have a shallow cultural memory, and hence little active learning from its history – such as what happened with dead social media services. For example, I think we can learn a lot about selfies and Instagram from the study of the defunct Israeli website I report in chapter 5, Media.

Similarly, I would have loved to draw out what we can learn from comparing phenomena – such as the ice bucket challenge and the Momo challenge. Somehow, the summer of 2014 seems like centuries ago when compared to the social media of 2019. Essentially, I believe that we can learn a lot about social media – and our selves – by studying its history. And there is a lot of research that needs to be done there – which will have to wait until my next book!

Finally, another aspect of writing a brief book for a general audience is that you don’t really get a chance to develop a main argument. But I’d like to think that in the final chapter, Values, that I get close enough to this.

I remain convinced that the best way to understand social media psychologically is as a kind of self-help, a ‘technology of the self’, if you will. Throughout history, people have used various tools or techniques to try to put some kind of order on their lives, whether it be prayer, mediation, therapy or simply keeping a diary.

What makes social media different is primarily how public they are, but also the fact that they are run by profit-making corporations. Moreover, these corporations claim to be ideology-free, but they do have a particular assumption about human nature – that it can be accurately described using a variety of quantitative measures.

To a social media service, you are essentially a probability calculation – the likelihood that you know this or that person, the likelihood that you live here or there, but fundamentally, the likelihood that you will click on a given advertisement. That is a clever way to run an advertising platform, but a fairly coarse ideology on which to base psychological practice. The question then becomes one of how we value our selves. Deep down, are you actually just a number?

Naturally, this has implications within the context of ‘psychographic’ advertisement targeting which emerged in the aftermath of the 2016 US Presidential election and the Brexit referendum, thanks to Cambridge Analytica. Not forgetting of course issues like bots, censorship, and fake accounts. How authentic is our psychology in such an environment?

Ultimately what I was trying to achieve with this book is a kind a of public address. I wanted to explain the concepts that underly psychology and social media, but not conclusively. I wanted to push readers into a place where they would start reflecting on their personal use of social media, but then leave them to decide what to do next.

So now – over to you!

For more information – please contact me.

The Psychology of Social Media – pre-order now!

The Psychology of Social Media

I am delighted to say that my book is now available to pre-order! You can find The Psychology of Social Media on Routledge and Amazon!

I am really proud to be part of Routledge’s Psychology of Everything series, and published alongside so many great authors writing on an extraordinary range of topics.

From the blurb

Are we really being ourselves on social media? Can we benefit from connecting with people we barely know online? Why do some people overshare on social networking sites?

The Psychology of Social Media explores how so much of our everyday lives is played out online, and how this can impact our identity, wellbeing, and relationships. It looks at how our online profiles, connections, status updates, and sharing of photographs can be a way to express ourselves and form connections, but also highlights the pitfalls of social media including privacy issues.

From FOMO to fraping, and from subtweeting to selfies, The Psychology of Social Media shows how social media has developed a whole new world of communication, and for better or worse is likely to continue to be an essential part of how we understand our selves.

I am really pleased with how this has turned out, and I hope you will enjoy reading it as much as I enjoyed writing it. I’ve deliberately written it to be accessible to anyone with an interest in social media. While it does rely on scientific research, it is meant to be readable by anyone who has ever used Facebook, Twitter or any other social media service. I wrote this book for you – to scratch below the surface of social media, not just to help us understand the but also our selves.

If you would like to know more about the book, or have any other questions, please do contact me!