Changing the World Through Facebook

January 15, 2018

When Klaus Schwertner (Managing Director of Caritas in the Archdiocese of Vienna) posted a lovely photograph on Facebook to celebrate the first birth of the year in Vienna earlier this month, he could have had no idea that his sweetly-intended routine action would attract thousands of comments and become the subject of an article in The New York Times within a few days.

There was nothing inherently alarming about that photograph; it showed a young husband and wife, with their newborn baby girl, shortly after the child was born. It was, for me, no different and no less heart-warming than any other “New Year’s Baby” photo published in newspapers around the world during the past several decades or posted on Facebook or any other social media platform during the past several years.

This one, however, caused enough of a reaction to inspire Melissa Eddy to write the article that appeared in print and online editions of the newspaper on January 4—because the parents and child are Muslims, and the smiling mother in the photograph is wearing a pink scarf. A version of the article in a print edition carried a headline capturing the initial shockingly brutal nature of many of the negative responses: “Vienna Welcomes 2018 Baby With Online Hate and Racism”; the online version that was also available as I was reading the print edition that morning included a more balanced, positive headline: “Vienna ‘New Year’s Baby’ Greeted First With Hate, Then Hearts.”

Those joining the online conversation extended the conversation beyond Facebook, into Twitter, and the hashtag #GegenHassImNetz (AgainstHateOnTheNet) helped bring many of the online participants together, but the controversy didn’t stop there. Schwertner’s updates included a post expressing astonishment that someone at Facebook had taken down his original post about the birth—in which he playfully called for a “rain of flowers” to commemorate the birth. His follow-up post publicly asked Facebook Chairman/CEO Mark Zuckerberg for an explanation for the disappearance of the now-controversial post, and asked for helping in restoring the post to Schwertner’s Facebook timeline—an action that was taken later that day, to Schwertner’s obvious delight.

“When you share something with the world, you’re sharing it with a lot of people who don’t think the way you do—who have different upbringings, values, and perspectives. If you believe in something, know that others believe in the opposite just as vehemently,” Samantha Becker, an independent consultant and President of SAB Creative & Consulting, noted during an interview we did earlier today. “There is still a lot of blind hate, and you have to separate the downright hateful reactions that have no basis. At the same time, the situations like the one you described…serve as an important reminder that though there has been a lot of social progress, we still have a long way to go. These kinds of incidents should incite more action towards positive change. Sadly, nothing brings people together like tragedy. It takes people’s hope for change and inspires them to make it a reality, in service of helping people they care about who have been impacted.”

There are numerous elements worth examining here to better understand the power of incorporating Facebook into efforts to foster small- and large-scale positive changes through the use of social media. First and foremost is a recognition of how quickly even the most innocuous posts on Facebook can become a central part of your responses to an issue you are interested in pursuing, e.g., the global effort to combat hate speech and bullying in public discourse by moving it into the context of #GegenHassImNetz. A second, nearly-as-important element, is acceptance of the fact that what happens on Facebook doesn’t stay on Facebook: my own awareness of the reaction to Schwertner’s post didn’t come via social media: it was a result of reading a copy of a print edition of The New York Times on January 4, 2018; feeling a mixture of amazement and horror as I read the language used against the parents and the child herself (solely because they were perceived to be different than those posting those hateful comments); using a mobile device I had with me to locate Schwertner’s Facebook account and use Google Translate to examine the source material; my discovery of the #GegenHassImNetz hashtag (mentioned in the newspaper article) and my subsequent exploration of the it to locate and read some of the positive comments posted on Twitter with that hashtag; and a quick decision to take positive action by posting a link to the article, along with an expression of support for Schwertner, the parents, and the child, on my own Facebook account to draw my own friends and colleagues into what had become a global conversation.

None of that, however, takes full advantage of the potential power of social media if we ignore the social aspect of Facebook and other social media platforms. I decided to pursue the social side by sending a “friend” request to Schwertner as a way of reaching out to him to express support and determine whether he would be willing to discuss the situation for inclusion in this book. I’m hoping that our eventual connection will be yet another example of how social media creates fruitful opportunities to produce positive change that would not otherwise be available to us

Equally important is a third element built into any attempt to use Facebook or other social media channels to nurture social change: there is no guarantee that we are reaching those we are attempting to reach. We often have far less control and far less reach than is apparent. The removal of Schwertner’s post reminds us that we cannot completely determine which of our online efforts remains accessible to those we want to reach, and the dissemination of Schwertner’s subsequent messages hides a common problem encountered in posting on Facebook: the algorithms that determine who sees a post often result in those posts reaching far fewer members of an intended audience than expected.

Love it or hate it—and my colleagues and I often find ourselves having both reactions—there is no denying that Facebook is a potentially powerful tool anyone interested in fostering positive social change has to understand at some level. As Tim O’Reilly notes in his book WTF: What’s the Future and Why It’s Up to Us, “…Facebook is the defining company of the social era…it has challenged Google as the master of collective intelligence, uncovering an alternate routing system by which content is discovered and shared.”

That’s a tool that cannot and will not be ignored.

N.B. — Paul is currently writing Change the World Using Social Media, scheduled for publication by Rowman & Littlefield in Winter/Spring 2019. This is the third in a continuing series of excerpts from the manuscript in progress.

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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 Winter/Spring 2019. This is the second in a continuing series of excerpts from the manuscript in progress.


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