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.
This is classic cultivation theory in mass communication — we see clips of violence, overestimate the prevalence of that violence, and it triggers psychological defense mechanisms to protect ourselves and our side.
Conor Friedersdorf is one of my favorite libertarians to read. He made this remark on Twitter after a summer of unrest captured on video:
It made me immediately think of George Gerbner’s cultivation theory. It’s an especially valuable teaching moment when mass communication theories from decades ago find newfound relevance on the smartphones in students’ hands today.
My thanks to Brian Stelter for giving an old media theory some new life.
“It’s low-stakes advocacy with high goodwill upside. These companies aren’t big Facebook spenders, and are only committing to suspend advertising through July. For wanderlust brands, pulling adverts when much of the world isn’t traveling makes sense apart from a boycott.”
Social media companies have come under increasing pressure to cut down on the amount of hate speech that circulates on their platforms. “Stop Hate for Profit” is one such movement, and it gained steam when a series of prominent outdoors brands, including North Face and Patagonia, announced they were pulling their advertising from Facebook.
At the risk of sounding cynical, this seems like an easy play for brands that were already cutting back on ad spending in a pandemic. But that doesn’t mean it can’t garner those companies some good PR, and if enough big spenders join the publicity party, it could potentially put a tiny dent in Facebook’s ad revenue. But when that’s the core of your business model… it’s an emerging crisis worth watching.
The boycotts have already proven to be excellent PR for the early-adopting brands, which may be the biggest encouragement for others to join the cause. We’ve seen study after study the past few years indicating that American consumers, especially the sought after 18-34 demo, want brands to engage in corporate advocacy.
Side note, it was really cool to appear alongside Matt Navarra in this piece. Matt’s one of my favorite voices for smart social media commentary. Follow him on Twitter.
Thanks to William Turvill for reaching out, and bearing with my wonky email client on deadline.
A version of this post later appeared as an article for NewsLab, a project of the University of Mississippi School of Journalism and New Media
After the dust from our toxic post-election discourse settled, the talk of traditional and social media turned to “fake news” – a term that has taken on new meaning in recent years, and new prominence in the 2016 presidential race.
In this iteration, fake news doesn’t refer to satire like The Daily Show or The Onion. Nor does it refer to news that is biased in its selection and interpretation of facts. No, for now we’re fighting a much simpler to identify foe – the peddling of information that is blatantly, demonstrably false and intentionally deceptive.
Stuff like these sensational – and completely fictional – headlines that circulated in the months leading up to the election:
Pope Francis shocks world, endorses Donald Trump for president, releases statement [Ending The Fed]
FBI agent suspected in Hillary email leaks found dead in apparent murder-suicide [Denver Guardian]
WikiLeaks CONFIRMS Hillary sold weapons to ISIS… Then drops another BOMBSHELL! Breaking news [The Political Insider]
Thousands of fake ballot slips found marked for Hillary Clinton! TRUMP WAS RIGHT!! [Donald Trump News]
President Obama confirms he will refuse to leave office if Trump is elected [Burrard Street Journal]
BREAKING: Hillary Clinton to be indicted… Your prayers have been answered [World Politic US]
Rupaul claims Trump touched him inappropriately in the 1990s [World News Daily Report]
This sort of nonsense has been around for a long time, previously circulating via your crazy relatives’ email inboxes. But it found new prominence this election cycle, on Facebook. Craig Silverman and his team at Buzzfeed compared Facebook engagement metrics on the top 20 fake news stories and the top 20 stories from a sampling of traditional media outlets across the final three quarters of the 2016 election. They found that after lagging well behind for most of the year, the most popular fake news out-engaged the most popular real news in the final three months of the race. (All of the headlines above were among the top 20 in that time period.)
*There are caveats to this method, and if you care, I discuss them at the end of this post. The point is that engagement with fake news has risen dramatically.
Hate and harassment on social media is driving users away. The difficulty of exposing hate, protecting victims, and limiting censorship.
Any corner of the Internet that facilitates anonymity is going to attract trolls. Twitter is no different. Recently, you might have noticed users placing their names in multiple (((parentheses))). It all traces back to anti-Semitic groups. Members place this parenthetical “echo” around Jewish people or businesses when attacking them on social media, giving compatriots an easy way to search for the target and join in on the harassment. There was even a now-removed Google Chrome plugin that made echoing easy, by cross-referencing text against a database of Jews. Here’s what it looked like in action:
Vox has an explainer if you want to read more about how the echo was used, as well as how it and the Chrome plugin were discovered by the rest of us.
Point is, once the echo was exposed, Twitter users, Jewish or not, began putting the echo around their names and other content. Not only a symbolic stand, it also undermined the beacon system being used by the hate groups.
Want to raise awareness about anti-Semitism, show solidarity with harassed Jews & mess with the Twitter Nazis? Put ((( ))) around your name.
The echo was defeated by the rest of the social media community. But that also involved Google taking down the plugin, which violated its terms forbidding “promotions of hate.” And it involved Twitter banning a number of users who “promote violence against or directly attack or threaten” other users.
Facebook, Twitter, Google, and the like all have different policies on dealing with harassment and hate speech, as well as the ways in which they curate content. They range from Google’s broad ban on hate code to Twitter’s fairly specific ban on direct, violent threats. A few weeks ago, all three agreed to adhere to the European Union’s “code of conduct on illegal online hate speech,” which requires resolution of hate speech reports within 24 hours, be it by removing or restricting the content or the user responsible.
However, speech laws are more restrictive in the E.U. than in the U.S., and vary by country. It’s the service provider’s job to figure out if a particular post fails to meet legal standards in those various jurisdictions. Much like the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA), which YouTube already lets rightsholders wildly abuse, companies face penalties for failing to suppress content, but suffer no consequence for blocking everything in sight just to catch a small number of actual offenders.
It’s easy to see how the social media platforms could lean on the side of heavy censorship.