Changing Ourselves as We Try to Change the World Through Social Media

January 2, 2018

Change often starts small, with the most simple, innocuous of acts. For some of us, it was our reaction to the news that a Minneapolis Public Schools administrator, DeRay McKesson, had driven from Minneapolis to Ferguson to witness and document what was happening in Ferguson in the aftermath of the shooting of Michael Brown by a member of the Ferguson Police Department in 2014. We had been reading about shootings of fellow citizens who were African-Americans—by members of our police departments, by private citizens who felt threatened by the presence of a young men like Trayvon Martin because those citizens were Black. We were—and continue to be—increasingly horrified by what we were and are seeing in “post-racial” America.

DeRay McKesson, from Wikimedia Commons

When McKesson began reporting from Ferguson, via Twitter, we recognized that something had changed significantly. In addition to all the other forms of media that provided first-rate, reliable information about critically important issues we were facing, we now had an ever-increasing level of access to and involvement in defining, reacting to, and seeking information about and solutions to those issues. This was raw and visceral—far beyond the polished, often pseudo-objective reporting that comes from our cherished mainstream-media representatives. We were experiencing and willingly joining multi-level, non-curated, expansive reports and conversations and calls to action through Twitter, Facebook, blogs, podcasts, and other online resources. Social media was not completely replacing one-way broadcast media including newspaper, radio, and television as important, significant, much-needed primary sources of information; those resources remain the meat and potatoes of information-gathering at a time when we struggle to distinguish between fake news and reliable reporting. On the other hand, social media tools were increasingly adding an important, dynamic, potentially world-changing element to our conversations and our perceptions about our world, how we interact with it, and how we might attempt to change it in positive ways.

Those already familiar with Twitter and other social media platforms need only glance at the most cursory list of the hashtags to become aware of the scope of our conversations and the way that the use of hashtags is making action-based conversation easier for even the most inexperienced of activists:

#BlackLivesMatter, #Brexit, #BringBackOurGirls, #DACA, #Dreamers, #Ferguson, #GunSense, #HealthReform, #MeToo, #NODAPL, #NotOneMore, #NotInOurName, #OccupyWallStreet, #ParisAccord

Let us make no mistake about it: This is a deeply personal, highly transformative level of change to some of us. It began changing the way we used and viewed social media tools including Facebook and Twitter. We began initiating conversations that we previously thought of as being too risky for online conversations; our shift came out of a decision that avoiding those online conversations that exposed and forced us to confront some of our deepest differences was far more risky than not exposing and confronting them. We openly reached out to friends and colleagues whose experiences and political beliefs differed tremendously from our own. We sought to listen, to learn, to find common ground, and to attempt to produce positive change in response to the difficult and often painful challenges that so often seemed to irrevocably separate us.

At times, our tongue-in-cheek approach (e.g., my own promotion and use of the hashtag #MakeAmericaCivilAgain in response to the disgustingly uncivil nature of discourse that was on full display during the Presidential election campaign in 2016) produced surprisingly encouraging results: colleagues from all walks of life found common ground in the idea that promoting civility in our interactions would be a great first step in trying to address some of our most wicked problems. We also realized that incorporating humor into our discussion was an important element in trying to re-civilize our exchanges.

We are drawn into these conversations, and we are engaged by small- and large-scale desires to positively respond to the challenges we face, because we all are potential activists. The use of social media tools is one of many resources we have in our personal and collaborative toolkits; the people I am interviewing for my book Change the World Using Social Media know and understand this because they use social media nearly every day.

Cayden Mak, 18 Million Rising

Some (e.g., Samantha Adams Becker, Maurice Coleman, David Lee King, and Jonathan Nalder) have been friends and colleagues for many years and are people who, before they agreed to be interviewed for this book, did not overtly identify themselves as activists. The fact that, as librarians, educators, and writers, they foster social change at small- and large-scale levels through their activity in a variety of social media platforms, will, I hope, encourage you to see that you don’t need to be famous or have thousands of followers in your social media accounts to be able to contribute to positive change in the communities you serve. Others (e.g., Cayden Mak, Elizabeth Myers, and Camila Mariño Venegas) have titles and responsibilities that put them at the heart of facilitating positive change within their communities; they are people I met through the use of social media and other online resources as I was seeking activists from a variety of backgrounds so I could provide examples of effective use of social media in a variety of environments and involving a wide range of issues attracting the effort of activists fostering positive social change.

Regardless of your current use of social media and your reach in promoting change, you can easily find plenty of examples via social media platforms themselves to help you see how social media, as part of your overall activist’s toolkit, can provide opportunities for conversation, planning, collaboration, and action that will bring you and others closer to riding waves of change rather than being drowned by them. You can also easily find plenty of examples of how some of our most creative colleagues using social media remain committed to honestly and openly cultivating a sense of trust and engagement with their online and onsite collaborators and those they serve.

“I think it’s not a coincidence that our staff still tends to be highly educated—not just in a book/academic way—but many of them, past and present, have been schooled so to speak in the history of social movements and stuff like that,” 18 Million Rising Executive Director Cayden Mak said during our initial interview for Change the World Using Social Media. “That kind of expertise allows us to speak from a very genuine place—I think the voice an­­d the tone that we built was intentionally comradely in that way because we share a set of cultural references, but we’re interested in bringing more people on board with those cultural references. I think it’s been a careful effort to ensure that we both demonstrate our expertise while making that accessible to people.

“The thing that this process taught me is the importance of trust. With other organizing formations I was a part of at the time, we were building trust in order to do high-stakes things like shutting down New York State Assembly meetings and risking arrest in order to highlight hypocrisy in the university system. Online, there isn’t necessarily a sense that there are high-risk actions to take. However, I think online organizers often do themselves a disservice when they emphasize that their tools and platforms make social action ‘easy’ or ‘simple.’ Because the whole point of organizing, to me, whether it’s online or off, is to build trust among a group of people in order for them to take calculated risks towards a goal.” 

N.B. — Paul is currently writing Change the World Using Social Media, scheduled for publication by Rowman & Littlefield in Fall 2018. This is the second in a continuing series of excerpts from the manuscript in progress.

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Hate Speech vs. Legitimate Political Expression: A Wicked Problem in Our Social Media Landscape

October 21, 2017

It’s a stunningly blunt and emotion-laden headline: “Facebook’s Secret Censorship Rules Protect White Men From Hate Speech But [Do] Not [Protect] Black Children.” And the full ProPublica article posted online in June 2017 appears beneath an equally blunt subhead: “A trove of internal documents sheds light on the algorithms that Facebook’s censors use to differentiate between hate speech and legitimate political expression.” The discussion extends into the ProPublica Facebook account (irony, anyone?), which includes a series of slides summarizing how “Facebook has used these rules to train its ‘content reviewers’ [aka “censors”] to decide whether to delete or allow posts.” And there is an additional thought-provoking follow-up in an article (“What Does Facebook Consider Hate Speech? Teach Our Quiz”) published in The New York Times this month.

The articles and that post provide a highly-nuanced, very thoughtful examination of the difficulties we face in establishing universally acceptable standards in a world where universal standards appear impossible to establish—and raise questions for at least a few of my colleagues as to whether we should even be attempting to establish those standards.

Let me be blunt: when I read the six statements included in The New York Times article to see how our own conclusions might differ from the conclusions resulting from those Facebook guidelines for its content reviewers, I don’t see a single comment there that I’m comfortable expressing or defending. I’m not going to tell anyone that they can’t say any of those things, but I’m also not going to remain silent face-to-face or online rather than expressing my firm opposition to those words and other thoughts that are so patently and disgustingly uncivil, incendiary, and destructive; terribly hurtful to friends, colleagues, and other members of our extended onsite and online communities; and in opposition to so much of what I hold to be foundational beliefs as to how we should be treating each other. I want us, collectively and collaboratively, to be seeking ways to make America (and our social media environments) a bit more civil again, and I believe that starts with us doing our best to find some acceptable minimum standards to which we can comfortably adhere.

Let’s start with the six “true-false” statements cited by Times staff members Audrey Carlsen and Fahima Haque, including their up-front statement and question (“Most readers will find them offensive. But can you tell which ones would run afoul of Facebook’s rules on hate speech?”) and the same question (“Would this statement meet Facebook’s criteria for hate speech?”) posted after each of the six statements:

  • “Why do Indians always smell like curry?!They stink!”
  • “Poor black people should still sit at the back of the bus.”
  • “White men are assholes.”
  • “Keep ‘trans’ men out of girls (sic) bathrooms!”
  • “Female sports reporters need to be hit in the head with hockey pucks.”
  • “I never trust a Muslim immigrant…they’re all thieves and robbers.”

The final entry on the ProPublica slide deck provides answers purportedly taken from the training Facebook has provided to its content reviewers, and a follow-up article in The Times provides additional information on that topic. It’s not pretty; as ProPublica suggests in its in-depth article, some of those comments make it past the Facebook guidelines, as users of Facebook must know from reading some of what comes into their feeds. But that doesn’t make them defensible, acceptable, or right—at least to many friends, colleagues, and acquaintances, from a variety of political spectrums, with whom I communicate via Facebook and other social media platforms.

I have the same reaction to those six statements that I had last week to some extremely crude and derogatory comments an acquaintance made the mistake of making to me, face to face, in front of my wife and another woman—in a way that suggested he thought he was being clever and funny: I want to—and in this case did—ask him what made him think that what he was saying was acceptable discourse among friends or acquaintances (although my wording was much less civil and much more crude than the paraphrase I’m offering here). Being tone-deaf to the question, he continued in a similar vein for a few more seconds until I explicitly told him—again, in much cruder and far less clever language—that he could take his trash to a different garbage can.

As I carry that thought back into that ProPublica article written by Julia Angwin and Hannes Grassegger, and the responses Facebook representatives provide in that article, I’m not left feeling that the people at Facebook are completely tone-deaf, despicable, or out of touch with the world around them. One important conclusion reached by reading and re-reading that article is that they—and we—are struggling with some very wicked problems here. I also acknowledge the truth behind one of the many thoughtful observations included in the story:

“‘The policies do not always lead to perfect outcomes,’ said Monika Bickert, head of global policy management at Facebook. ‘That is the reality of having policies that apply to a global community where people around the world are going to have very different ideas about what is OK to share.’”

That article is also very good about citing positive steps Facebook employees have taken when they create their own do-not-cross lines (“graphic violence, child abuse, revenge porn and self-mutilation”) and how they have apologized when some of their decisions and actions (including deleting comments and temporarily locking users out of their Facebook accounts).

But what we’re left with is a classic example of a wicked problem: how to establish minimum community standards when significant numbers of people within a community are far from being in agreement. Which, of course, doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try.

N.B. — Paul is currently writing Change the World Using Social Media, scheduled for publication by Rowman & Littlefield in Fall 2018. This is the first in a series of excerpts from the manuscript in progress.


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