I had a whole post ready to go talking about the attempted bombings by a domestic alt-right terrorist and the role social media played in his actions. That was before the nightmare in Pittsburgh. That was before another mass murderer, his violent bigotry honed through sick communities of hate whose work is actively published on these same social media platforms, stepped into a place of worship and killed innocent people.
So here I am, revising this post as I go, but the question to those of us who still use these sites remains: what do we do in the face of an ongoing tide of hatred on social media? Is it time for us to leave these platforms?
It might not be a big surprise that I don’t interact a lot on social media. Facebook barely exists for me. Except for specific work accounts, I almost never post on Facebook, and I rarely look at my personal messages or my wall. The posts that do go to my wall only go to me. If I do respond (mostly to birthday wishes) those responses are also not shared, and I quickly migrate offsite if the messages continue. I am not interested in engaging on Facebook, at all. That said, Instagram is also Facebook and I do post there from time-to-time and it is just as filled with the same hate and vitriol. I do have a Twitter account, though, and I was active(ish) on Twitter right up through this fall. Occasionally, I still post and respond to different Twitter feeds. It helps that I have a great community of people that I follow on Twitter. There are a lot of amazing scholars on social media talking about their research and opening their work up to audiences that don’t always have access to that material. They also provide an excellent behind-the-scenes view of the work we do, pushing back against misconceptions and demystifying the processes and theories that ground a lot of modern culture. I think that work is incredibly important.
I also can’t ignore that my experience with this small group of scholars and creators on Twitter isn’t the norm. I can’t ignore the very real harm that these social media sites have been actively supporting for quite some time. Too often, I see a lot of lip service and no action. The people in the communities I follow will highlight the misdeeds of the platforms in a few posts or tweets, say those platforms should do better, and then keep on using the sites as if nothing happened. Despite repeated and consistent examples of the toxic and destructive nature of the content they produce, the platforms are slow to do anything but give lip service and empty apologies. Beyond that, the sites suffer no negative impact. In fact Twitter just announced a solid profit in last quarter despite a mild decline in its user base.
I am a big believer in the conscious and mindful use of technology, and I have no problem dropping platforms when I disagree with their policies1. I am not sure that a strategy of disengagement is the best option in this case, though. Certainly, social media platforms have a problem, and certainly they have become breeding grounds for hate. Similarly, there is no excuse for how slowly these corporations have responded to this critical issue, but the truth is that they are just as overwhelmed as their users are. It’s too easy and flatly incorrect to blame social media for the existence of hate groups. Hate groups have always been around. What they have learned, however, is how to use and manipulate social media to spread their toxic messages while creating spaces of indoctrination for disaffected individuals looking for a place to belong. The companies that have grown up around these social media technologies have failed to find a way to respond. What gives me hope is that these companies are still looking for ways to respond. When a company gives up and creates policies enshrining that failure2 then I walk away from that company. I am not sure Twitter has done that, yet. I do think we need to be willing to walk away, though. If Twitter and other platforms do nothing or create policies that protect and legitimize this type of speech, we need to do more than offer lip service. I just hope that isn’t necessary.
One final caveat to all of this. Please, stay mindful of your own use of social media and take care of yourselves. If any site is putting you at risk or even just becoming a negative influence in your life, there is nothing wrong with walking away. You don’t owe these sites anything. I don’t spend as much time on Twitter for exactly that reason. Too often, I left the site feeling angry and frustrated. There is enough negativity around us, right now. We don’t need to have it compounded any more than we already do.
Stay safe out there, everyone.