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According to a Nielsen study, social media is no longer in its infancy.  No kidding.

During the November military confrontation between Israel and Hamas, social media played a very grown-up role.  What distinguished it from past politically-charged social media exchanges was the participation of state and pseudo-state spokespersons.  Official announcements were issued by the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) and Hamas’ Al-Qassam Brigade via Twitter and Facebook in near real-time.

The evolution of social media into an official communications venue should come as no surprise.  It follows a time-honored pattern of disruptive ideas and technologies gaining acceptability as they move into the mainstream.  The Nielsen Social Media 2012 study tells us that 30 percent of individuals’ mobile device time is spent accessing social media.  That qualifies as mainstream.

But the way we are communicating makes things more complicated.  Aided and abetted by things like social media and texting, our communications are shorter and snarkier.  My Mad magazine and Saturday Night Live-nurtured generation are, as adults, cranking out quasi-news and political satire side by side with serious reportage.  The asymmetric nature of online publishing leaves a culturally disadvantaged reader with little to go by in terms of assessing authenticity.  We should hardly be surprised that a report from The Onion nominating North Korea’s Kim Jong-Yun as “Sexiest Man Alive” recently was taken seriously by Chinese state media.

This is why the official tweet war between the IDF and Hamas is so disconcerting.  It represents the next step in an evolution– which started with tweets by bored narcissists, graduated to activists in Tahrir Square and tweets by The White House pressroom, and ended up with dead-serious war threats.   And it is taking place in a medium prone to irreverence and brevity, leaving a lot of room for misunderstanding.

Politicians, journalists, academics, and company executives all have little choice whether to participate; they are expected to demonstrate their fluency with new media and the younger generation.   Even the Pope tweets now.  The opportunity for things to go wrong leaves a hole big enough to drive an industrial-sized document-shredder through.

For now, companies, lawyers, and governments are forced to use a medium with an adolescent propensity to act out, while dealing with very serious issues, including authentication, brand protection, and privacy.  Information security specialists, take note:

Ultimately, the edginess of social media may be blunted by responsible adults when enough damage has been done through intentional manipulation or carelessness, but that seems a long way off.   In the interim, when using social media officially or personally, use your inside voice.

The authentication of social media postings, David I. Schoen, American Bar Association, 17 May 2011.

Fake Twitter accounts get real laughs, Ashley Parker, New York Times, 09 Feb 2011.

The Twitter Rules (terms of use),

The Tweets of War, The New Yorker, 19 Nov 2012.

Gaza violence leads lawmakers to call for shuttering terror groups on Twitter, The Hill, 23 Nov 2012.

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  1. Excellent post about what is real and what is no with social media. Everything moves at the speed of now that vetting is more critical than ever. Legal concerns haven’t even begin to catch up with today’s communication tools and I suspect they never will. Would love to hear more on this subject.


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