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What is the role of social media in overcoming single stories? Our daily reality is full of simplifications, partial news and stereotypes that can easily fuel prejudices and discrimination, and social media can constitute the perfect vehicle to fuel such misconceptions if not used properly. Social media holds the power of shaping and reshaping crucial information and narratives; thus, an ethical question arises: how should we make use of such tools?

A group of people holding mobile phones. The use of our phones have become so part of our lives that we almost "speak" with them. As our speaking can be unethical, so is our presence on social media. Photo: Unsplash

On the 31st of May, a group of selected professionals met online for the third and last discussion on the value of Single Stories, the pillar concept around which Project Smite (SMITE – Stereotypes & Mass Information Together Explored) revolves. During the meeting that went live on Facebook, we heard thoughts about

the ethics in social media usage from Times of Malta Editor in Chief Herman Grech, honourable judge Ray Singh CBE, Chairperson of the Welsh Race Council, Dr Carla Camilleri, legal officer at ADITUS, Deborah Bolanle, nurse and Pastor for African community, and Klaus-Peter Edinger, Pastor of the German Community in Malta.

“We have the responsibility to work against discrimination in any form”, according to Maria-Gabriele Doublesin, chairperson of NWAMI International Malta, author and promoter of the project. For this reason, the aim of the project is to empower migrant communities, enabling them to create their own story and to be heard, in real life as well as in the virtual dimension.

The discussion begins with a crucial question: what are the main ethical issues on social media? The panellists are unanimous in agreeing that social media can be both a blessing and a curse. According to Judge Singh, social media is an excellent way to spread useful information all around the world and to encourage people to get involved against historical issues such as racism, as we have seen with the rise of the “Black Lives Matter” movement in recent years.

Social media hold an extreme power for the best, however, they do so until they do not anymore. The flip coin lies in the way they are used: if improperly managed, social media can be a tool for harassment of vulnerable people, hate crimes, grooming and radicalization, especially against the youngest.

Mr Grech points out the need to learn about what “stereotyping” really means, as well as what freedom of speech entails. Only in this way is it possible to draw a line between proper and improper behaviour in the virtual world, and the only way to do so is to be media literate and develop critical thinking. Nonetheless, sometimes education is not enough to prevent abuses from taking place online, and an intervention by the justice system to establish some ground rules becomes a valuable option.

Social media can also convey a distorted representation of reality, said Pastor and Nurse Deborah Bolanle. People would try anything to twist information to their own advantages, often for personal gains and despite the consequences that they may cause for others.

Speaking of consequences, the participants were asked to point out the most significant ones when it comes to ethical issues on social media. Cyberbullying and growing social anxiety among young people are the answer for Mr Grech, along with possible development of depression and exposure to racism and xenophobia. In this regard, Dr Carla Camilleri reminds us that in 2018 Malta was one of the EU countries rated higher for online hate speech and, again, this is because of generalised lack of media literacy and control over the official narrative that even the Maltese authorities present over specific issues such as migration. People can also experience a proper addiction to social media usage, says Pastor Bolanle, with serious consequences for both their physical and mental health.

Pastor Edinger strikes another key point: social media cannot replace the relationship that people entangle in real life, because the type of connections that we can create are intrinsically different in the virtual world and this, in turn, can constitute a problem for certain cultures in which people approach each other in specific ways, such as it happens in the African context that the Pastor knows very well.

So, what can constitute a proper solution? For Dr Camilleri, the change should start at the political level, with a commitment to antiracism speech in the political discourse, especially when tackling issues of migration. Education and media literacy among the population are also key points shared unanimously by all the panellists.

Furthermore, according to Pastor Edinger, we must find a way to give people the opportunity to meet each other and to learn about different points of view to eradicate stereotypes and misconceptions. Giving people a positive understanding of each other is paramount to fight prejudices.

There should also be a regulatory body to avoid discrimination against foreigners from taking place, says Pastor Bolanle. People in Malta should be aware of the problem of hate speech and discrimination online and they should act against it. And when confronted with the question of who will regulate media literacy in Malta, the pa

nellists point to educators, media professionals and NGOs, underlying also the importance of employing migrants directly at the frontline of media. Single stories in media need to be constantly challenged in order to make a difference, and presenting a different perspective is a powerful starting point.

The talk was moderated jointly by Levi Lijkong from African Media Association Malta and Maria Gabiela Doublesin.

The project SMITE is managed jointly by African Media Association Malta and NWAMI International Malta, and funded by Active Citizens Fund Malta, which is operated by SOS Malta.

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