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Social Media Is Like Stir-From-the-Bottom Yogurt, Culture and All

Security and its integration with social media continues to be a topic of conversation amongst my colleagues in Security Intelligence Operations. We observe how “being connected” has become an integral part of many lives around the world: each voice has an opportunity to be heard, provided those voices are given unfettered access to the Internet. It’s somewhat like an electronic ecosystem of democracy. And like a democracy, the results of those voices participating in a global conversation are not always well understood or appreciated. I believe that this is due in part to those conversations being filtered through two unavoidable lenses: national borders and culture. Jean Gordon Kocienda provides an excellent analysis on the challenges faced by nation states. In this post, I’d like to offer up some thoughts on the cultural implications of the global conversations taking place in social media.

Let’s first call out three things that have historically made communication between different groups a challenge well before social media was even a phrase: generational differences, language, and culture. Much as rock music was a horrible noise for parents when it first emerged, so are text messages and Twitter in comparison to the formality of e-mail. Some consider the informality of social media to be vexing and contrary to the very notions of “social.” Language is its own worst enemy at times when it’s misinterpreted (willfully or otherwise) by people who claim it as their own. Anyone recall the unlucky friends who tweeted about their upcoming visit to the United States? These folks sure do. This is an example of language and culture mixing it up with a deleterious outcome. The security risks associated with an off-the-cuff comment are significantly greater due to the amplified effects of ease of distribution at a comparatively near zero time lag.

Social media additionally brings its own unique attributes to the mix. Above all else, it’s the Internet: With rare exception, you cannot “unring the bell” once you’ve contributed to the conversation. A simple apology or statement of misunderstanding often wilts when taken to task by heated discourse on someone’s Facebook timeline. Just as easily, the same medium might be used as an equally powerful vector for retribution, sometimes with a new and separate life of its own. These can combine to generate passionate responses, counter-responses, or worse. Throw in instant gratification, willingness to take an image at face value (even if that image has been manipulated in some way), and we create a volatile environment which can lead to events whose security ramifications are significant.

It’s inevitable that a concept that started out with the best of intentions—connecting people across national and cultural boundaries—has grown to such proportions that security incidents are part of the dialog. We’ll always have a need to contextualize information—something that’s done through the filters of one’s cultural experience. While social media now provides us access to more information, it also foists the responsibility for interpretation upon the individual.

Do what you can to help minimize those unfortunate incidents, be it through your own actions or the education of others.

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