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Social media got us into a mess. Can it get us out of it?

Anatoliy Gruzd and Philip Mai are co-directors of the Social Media Lab at Ryerson University's Ted Rogers School of Management.

In his farewell speech, U.S. president Barack Obama warned that social media is an existential threat to democracy. "Increasingly, we become so secure in our bubbles that we accept only information, whether true or not, that fits our opinions, instead of basing our opinions on the evidence that's out there."

For a communication medium that didn't even exist 20 years ago, Mr. Obama's speech attests to the pervasive influence of social media on our society. This is especially ironic coming from a president whose team expertly used social media and who will go down in history as "the first social media president." This tension and ambivalence about the role of social media in our society is understandable. When we see it used in popular political uprisings or charitable fundraising, we recognize it as a force for good. When we see it used to recruit terrorists or propagate racism, we condemn it as a malignant tool.

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The power of social media to serve as a medium for good or for bad was on full display in 2016 during the previous U.S. presidential election and the Brexit referendum – when fake news spread like wildfire over social media. These two events are watershed moments and remove any lingering doubts about the power of social media to set agendas, shape public policy and change the course of nations.

The public and leaders of the free world – except for U.S. President Donald Trump – are taking notice and are finally mustering the political will to tackle the problem. Mr. Obama made it a cornerstone of his farewell speech. Hillary Clinton, herself the target of many social media attacks, warned about its destructive tendencies. German Chancellor Angela Merkel passed new laws holding social media companies to account for helping to spread fake news. British Prime Minister Theresa May took it a step further and announced a plan to regulate the Internet.

Current research has identified many of the positive opportunities of using social media; for example, how people use it to form support groups online and extend teaching and learning outside the classroom. However, in recent years we have also seen social media being used to recruit terrorists, livestream criminal activities, reinforce ideological echo chambers, and perpetuate hate and oppression. The question now is: Where do we go from here? Some will argue this is purely a technological problem, best solved by tweaking user interfaces, creating smarter algorithms and deploying more intuitive artificial-intelligence systems to curate social media content. Others will cry out for more punitive laws.

The key question is how we can take this course correction without extinguishing the early promises of the Internet, and later social media, to turn the world into a connected global village rendering distance and place irrelevant.

Like radio and television that came before, social media is a disruptive medium that has shaken up the social space and created new winners and losers in the political space. It shares many characteristics of its predecessors, but it is also unique in its ability to scale information quickly and more efficiently. The solutions to many of the ills created or exacerbated by social media will have to be both technology- and policy-based.

Any solution would also have to include an educational component to introduce digital media literacy training at all levels of our education system. As Canadians are becoming increasingly connected, we need to dispel the myth of the "digital native" and start thinking about how to help Canadians become fully functioning digital citizens with capabilities to engage in the digital economy as creators and consumers of social media content; the critical skills to differentiate fake from real news; courage to speak up for civility and how to disagree without disrespect – all while not forgetting that what we do and say online will likely have direct and real consequences offline.

The impulse to turn away from the deceptions and belligerence found on social media is understandable, but leaving such an important platform to marketers, microcelebrities, trolls and hackers would be a greater risk.

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On July 28-30, Ryerson University's Ted Rogers School of Management will host 250 scholars and experts for the 8th International Conference on Social Media and Society (#SMSociety) to address these urgent questions.

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