[Published] A return to real social networking

Reconnecting is hugely important, not only to our economy but to our sense of community and understanding of people around us. This summer is going to be about getting back to the things that we love. But it can also be about correcting some of the bad communication habits we’ve fallen into that have left us feeling out of touch and even angry at the world outside.

I wrote for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette twice in 2020, both columns about how the COVID-19 pandemic created an unhealthy communication environment prone to misinformation and animosity.

Now that Arkansas and America are returning to normal, I wanted to write something to remind us of the community beyond our screens and encourage real social networking – even if we might be a little rusty. The piece relies on theory and research into social identity, relational maintenance, community structure, and affective dimensions of partisanship and trust.

Read the column in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

See more of my media appearances here.

[Published] Burst the bubble

The toxicity that leads some of us to unplug from social media is a feature, not a bug. 

I’ve been vaguely familiar with the social media app Parler for maybe a year. The free speech haven made a splash after the election, attracting conservatives fed up with perceived bias from Facebook and Twitter. Though Parler imagines itself a free wheeling marketplace of ideas, its recruiting efforts have attracted a decidedly homogenous user base.

Echo chambers are nothing new. But here in Arkansas, we saw an example of the type of rhetoric one can feel comfortable expressing in such a place, when the police chief of a small town posted “parleys” calling for violence against Democrats on the national stage, and in your community.

This piece gave me a chance to revisit some important themes throughout 2020 – that social media coupled with a pandemic is a recipe for heightened partisanship – and to take a look at a new dimension of hyperpolarization: the radicalization resulting from constant enemy-making.

Partisans aren’t just encouraged by affirmations of their in-group; they are galvanized by demonizations of out-groups. Straw men and memes mocking the “other side” prevail across partisan filter bubbles, creating what Italian researchers called an “emotional contagion” of negativity and what a new study out of the University of Virginia deemed a “phenomenon of animosity.”

This was also a chance to share some surface findings from a study of partisan social media bubbles during the election. Look for more of that on the horizon soon.

Read the full story in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

See more of my media appearances here.

[Published] Why coronavirus conspiracies are thriving

The longer we stay at home and social distance during the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, the more misinformation and conspiracy seem to thrive. Sure, the supply-side is spraying nonsense in every direction for profit, power, anarchy, or all the above. But the flood of falsehoods exists in part because demand is through the roof. The same measures keeping us safe from coronavirus are making us susceptible to misinformation about it.

It was the Plandemic video that really got my attention. I wasn’t just seeing it shared by my more conspiratorial friends, but by seemingly everyone on my Facebook news feed. So I started digging into what we know of selective exposure and cognitive outcome involvement, paired with early research on coronavirus messaging, to explain why conditions are ripe for conspiracies to travel beyond their usual circles, and what can be done at the state and individual level to combat it.

Read the full story in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

See more of my media appearances here.

In due time

The tragedy in Orlando, a vigil in Little Rock, and knowing when not to post something.

My post this week was going to be about online hate speech, and how attempts to regulate it can inadvertently do harm to the marketplace of ideas. It’s a commentary I stand by, and will share with you at the appropriate time.

The day of the deadliest mass shooting in the United States* is not that time. It’s not chilling of speech by some homophobic terrorist; it’s just not being tone-deaf. This can wait.

Don’t misunderstand – this is not one of those “don’t politicize tragedy” refrains. In the wake of another mass shooting, The Onion shouldn’t be ringing true. ‘No way to prevent this,’ says the only nation where this regularly happens.

The Orlando shooter had been questioned by the FBI at least twice since 2013 and was previously on the terror watch list. He legally purchased the AR-15 assault rifle he used to shoot over 100 people in rapid succession. The same weapon used to kill elementary school children at Sandy Hook, movie goers in Aurora, college students in Oregon, and public health workers in San Bernardino. (By the way, even if he had still been on the terror watch list at the time of the purchase, it still would have been legal.)

I make a concerted effort to empathize with people who hold differing viewpoints. And the gun culture is one I’ll admit having great trouble understanding. But it sure seems like we should at least be able to agree that a person with such a history so easily purchasing an assault rifle is problematic. After our politicians’ “thoughts and prayers,” perhaps we could fix it?

And while empty platitudes from politicians who intend to do nothing are aggravating, we shouldn’t so callously dismiss those whose genuine thoughts and prayers are what they can offer. People who are at the same time comforted and mobilized by the healing and intercession found in prayer. People who would be physically serving the families of the victims if they could.

I just got back from a vigil on the steps of the Arkansas state capitol (pictured above). A few hundred people, led by Little Rock’s LGBT community, sang, hugged, cried, and prayed. Right now, many of them are gathered to watch the city’s bridges become illuminated in rainbow colors. It won’t change what happened. The families of the victims in Orlando will probably never know it occurred. And after a day like today, it’s still intrinsically important.

We’ll pick up this conversation again. In due time.

 

*At least by a lone gunman in a single attack. There are some pre-20th century incidents that could be included depending on your definition.

Teaching media literacy in a world of active shooters

I teach in a world of active shooters.

Whenever I teach a university-core communication course, I always include a bit of media literacy, even if it’s a speech/interpersonal-oriented class. If this will be the only exposure non-majors receive to the discipline, I believe one of the most practical skills I can teach them is how to be wise consumers and distributors of information.

This is how that played out in a classroom in Arkansas.

Continue reading “Teaching media literacy in a world of active shooters”