Social Internet ‘Could Split Britain Further Apart’

Tom Brewster is TechWeek Europe's Security Correspondent. He has also been named BT Information Security Journalist of the Year in 2012 and 2013.

Government advised to think about the negative impact of technology on social integration

British society could become “more pluralised, and less integrated”, as an increasing number of virtual communities emerge online, such as those forming on social Internet sites like Facebook and Twitter.

That was the warning in the ‘Future Identities’ report released today by the Foresight Programme, which advises the government on science, Internet and thinking “systematically about the future”.

Facebook - Shutterstock - © Pan Xunbin / Shutterstock.comThe report, backed by the chief scientific adviser to the government Professor Sir John Beddington, suggested that different communities coming together on social Internet sites could have positive and negative effects.

Social Internet not great leveller?

The traditional view of the social Internet is that it acts like a great leveller, bringing people of all races, religions and backgrounds together. But it can also do the opposite, the report noted.

Whilst there is an opportunity for people to connect for specific purposes, such as activism, as seen in the formation of hacktivist groups like Anonymous, such demarcations on the Web could drive people apart rather than integrating, the report said.

“Intergenerational relationships could come under strain,” it suggested. “Young people as ‘digital natives’ could have very different sets of expectations, linked to the trend towards hyper-connectivity, which can pose both opportunities and challenges for society.

“Social media can facilitate links between like-minded individuals to create niche communities of interest, which could be benign or malign, and may reinforce existing behaviours, normalise minority identities and broaden choices.

“The internet does not produce a new kind of identity, but has instead been instrumental in raising awareness that identities were more multiple, culturally contingent and contextual than had previously been fully appreciated.”

The report suggested the government explore the indirect and direct implications of policy for communities and people’s sense of belonging.

Despite these concerns, the report homed in on many of the opportunities the “hyper-connected” world offers. Social mobility could well improve thanks to the ability to learn for free online, whilst Big Data offers manifold benefits, by opening up potential for services based on the rafts of data crossing the UK’s networks and allowing the government to gain a better insight into the impact of policies.

“The increasing speed and connectivity of information technology systems offers opportunities for monitoring what is happening in real time, and assessing the effectiveness of specific policies,” it read.

Yet there remain privacy issues with Big Data, the report noted. “Individuals will be more easily identified through triangulating data from multiple anonymised data sets, each giving an additional piece of information, potentially reducing privacy.”

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