Ceramic figurines representing Twitter logo. (LLUIS GENE/AFP/Getty Images)

The past month has seen celebrities wage war on ordinary people who dare stand up to them on social media, wielding their massive armies of followers like digital weapons of destruction. It has seen a growing number of journalists saying they plan to call it quits from Twitter as toxicity rises to a level even they can no longer stand amid everything from hurtful taunts about their children to outright threats of violence. Is social media simply becoming too toxic?

I honestly used to enjoy skimming Twitter in its early days. While there were certainly trolls and people trying to tear others down back then, there was also a lot of thoughtful, informed and insightful conversation as well. The good largely outweighed the bad and there was genuine constructive community building occurring.

Somewhere in the years since, social media lost its way.

Social media’s rising tide has lifted all boats, elevating even the most horrific and toxic voices singularly fixated on tearing society apart and placing them equal with those informed and measured voices trying to bring us together.

This is perhaps the central conundrum that social media sites face: how to empower the traditionally unempowered, without simultaneously allowing all of the pent-up hatred to overwhelm the good? Add to that mix the international perspective, especially the myriad ways in which repressive governments exploit hate speech and counter-terrorism laws to censor any voices that might dare to criticize their leaders. To a lawmaker in the US it might seem trivial to define what “terroristic speech” is and a non-brainer to require social media sites to ban it. To a repressive regime, all it takes is a law classifying government criticism as terroristic speech and suddenly there is a built-in pipeline to block all online criticism.

What went wrong with the great social experiment that was social media’s promise to give voice to the voiceless and bring all of us across the world together?

Even academia, that ivory tower of knowledge and reasoned debate, in which experts debate theories in public with eloquent speeches and a competition for whom has a better command of the literature or whose evidence-based experimentation is stronger, devolves into schoolyard taunts and threats of violence when it comes to social media. It is truly remarkable to see storied faculty members whose lists of awards and positions of power and prestige in their fields are legend, resort to profanity-laden diatribes like children when it comes to social media.

Of course, the public image of academia as brilliant dispassionate scholars working together in collaborative research above the political fray in the service of solving the world’s ills has always been merely a thin veneer above a toxic cesspool that in many ways has found its perfect match on social media. Racial and misogynic disparagement and discrimination have always occurred behind closed doors, but social media has increasingly brought those conversations into public view.

At one of social science’s best known annual conferences several years ago a storied professor took the stage to give an invited speech in which he launched a personal tirade against a competing researcher, taking aim at that other researcher’s heritage, ethnicity and national origin and claiming that people from that person’s country had no business being in academia and lacked the brain power to do research. When a formal complaint was lodged with the society over such a clear violation of its code of conduct, the society initially rejected the complaint, claiming the person had denied making the statements. Yet, in our social media world, of course, the faculty member posted a version of his remarks online while the audience live tweeted the remarks in realtime. Confronted with overwhelming evidence, the society eventually acknowledged the remarks had been made, but eventually ruled that the person was merely making a joke and that the use of racial or sexual epithets would not be considered a violation of the code of conduct if the speaker claimed they were simply a joke.

As I’ve watched so many of my female and underrepresented colleagues quit social media over the abuse they’ve faced, much of which has come from fellow academics, rather than anonymous trolls, it is disheartening to see just how hateful academia is when faculty are outside the classroom door and in the playground of social media.

It is particularly saddening to see just how vicious academics can be on social media, emboldened by the knowledge that tenure makes it nearly impossible for them to be terminated or sanctioned. One colleague published a paper in a top journal only to have it savaged on social media by other academics not because of any methodological or content concerns, but rather because they felt a woman had no business being in their field. While such beliefs have long been harbored in private in portions of academia, it is remarkable to see just how openly they are now expressed in social media. The very faculty training our next generation of leaders are setting an example for their students of venting their full emotional fury against everything they dislike.

Seeing a colleague post a savage personal attack against another on Twitter is bad enough, but when they encourage their followers, ranging from other colleagues to their students, to add to the thread with their own personal attacks because the colleague being attacked isn’t on Twitter and so its safe to eviscerate them, that is a really sad commentary on a society in which even the learned elites that are supposed to be above the fray are actually down in the sewers egging on the trolls. It is even more sad when the person being attacked is actually on social media and sees all of that commentary and attempts to respond, only to be overwhelmed with horrific hate speech and threats of violence.

Tweeting to the world in explicit terms your disagreements with a recently published paper might act as a cathartic release to you but doesn’t actually advance the scholarly dialog. Did you actually try discussing your concerns with the author? Do your concerns actually relate in any way to the article itself? If an article is presenting a new workflow to data mine copyrighted content in a legal manner, is it a fair criticism for other academics to launch into profanity-heavy tweetstorms attacking the paper because they believe copyright should be eliminated and all information should be free? If the paper’s focus is on technical workflows, it seems that personal and violent attacks against the author relating to a hatred of copyright will do little to facilitate a constructive dialog and have little to do with the paper itself.

Of course, in a way one might argue that the toxicity of social media is perfectly aligned, perhaps even tailor made, for the toxicity of academic discourse. The process of publishing in many academic disciplines involves summarizing previous work similar to the current paper and describing why the current paper improves or corrects that previous work and thus should be published. A paper might even focus entirely on attacking a previous study, attacking its methods, datasets, theories or interpretations.

Unlike in journalism, where the subject of a negative story must be given the opportunity to respond, in academia no such courtesy is afforded. The first the other paper’s author might learn about a new paper attacking one of their studies is through emails from colleagues when the paper is published. In many disciplines the more sensational the story, the more likely it is to be published. In short, in academia, like in social media, the more you can defame your competition the better your chances are for getting the word out. At the same time, the exponential growth in publication output in the era of digital publication means the review process catches less and less of the issues that used to be stopped before they ever saw the light of day.

This brings us back to the events of this past month, especially the question of celebrity trolls that harness the power of their vast follower networks to launch very personal attacks against those who would dare to stand up to them. Twitter in particular makes it trivial for a famous individual to whip thousands, tens of thousands or even tens of millions of their followers into a frenzy of hateful speech and even outright threats of violence or doxing all with the push of a button.

In the past a celebrity who has a moment of anger against someone who says something negative about them might have privately cursed about the criticism, but their phalanx of public relations personnel would ensure that nothing became public. In the social media era, that same celebrity in a moment of hotheadedness can spew forth unrestricted vitriol in realtime, firing up their tens of millions of followers to continue the attack for hours or even days.

Such celebrity bullying poses particularly troubling and existential challenges for Twitter for which those celebrities are a key part of its draw. While the company has actively touted its efforts to curb overall bullying on its platform, it has few options to constrain such outbursts by its celebrity members that are what bring many of its users to the platform. Indeed, when asked whether Twitter planned to hold its celebrity members to the same anti-bullying standards as ordinary users and whether it planned on sanctioning those users in any way for situations in which they incited their followers into bullying, the company notably did not respond. In similar fashion, when asked this past March why the company was only now prioritizing the issue of toxicity on the platform, a spokesperson offered that the company had no comment.

Facebook has similarly struggled with hate speech and calls to violence on its platform.

Just this past week it came out during a Congressional hearing that a House member’s staff had previously reported a Facebook page to the company that called for violence against members of Congress and been told by the company that the page did not violate its policies. During the hearing Facebook’s Head of Global Policy Management confirmed that the page did indeed violate its policies and would be immediately removed. The page swiftly disappeared after the hearing, though the company claims the page owner deleted it. When asked why the company initially refused to delete the page, claiming that incitement to violence was not a violation of its policy, a Facebook spokesperson pointed to a previous blog post outlining its moderation processes and offered that “our enforcement isn’t perfect.” When asked what recourse ordinary citizens have to appeal a ruling regarding a direct incitement of violence, the spokesperson added that an appeals process will be coming, but that substantive details are not yet available.

It is notable that both Twitter and Facebook have embraced remarkable about faces when it comes to their moderation policies under the threat of government intervention. After years of arguing it was impossible to do more than they were, the threat of government regulation led both to swiftly enact waves of new policies, technologies and structural changes. Despite their constant protestations that government intervention is bad, the changes the social media networks have made in response to threats of government regulation are stark reminders that government regulation is one of the few tools that works to force the companies to take toxicity and threats of violence more seriously.

In the end, by waiting until their platforms had become hotbeds of toxicity, social media companies missed key opportunities to cultivate environments from the very beginning dominated by respectful informed debate and dialog. Of course, it is certainly possible that toxicity and hate speech are key drivers of their success, creating the kind of virality and uninhibited freedom of expression that propelled them into superstardom. Yet, in the absence of meaningful efforts to curb that toxicity, it remains to be seen whether the current generation of social media platforms are remembered as the tools that brought the world together or the weapons of societal warfare that tore us apart.

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