Tag Archives: Facebook

Engage!

There’s no dearth of discussion about the effect of social media on culture and politics. Facebook and Twitter, especially, are credited (if that’s the word) with facilitating everything from the Arab Spring to the surprise victory of Glenda Ritz here in Indiana. Political observers tell us that sophisticated use of social media was a major factor in Obama’s successful GOTV effort, and that bungled use of that same media hampered that of the Romney campaign.

During a discussion about the Media and Policy class we’ve been team teaching this semester, John Mutz wondered aloud whether these forms of communication might be destabilizing government, making it much more difficult to engage in the sort of negotiation and deliberation that democratic theory prizes.  I think he’s right, and I think this is an unfortunate and under-appreciated consequence of our current, frenetic media environment.

It’s not just the speed with which information, innuendo, rumor and half-backed conspiracy theories circle the globe. It’s the partial nature of that information.

The goal of democratic societies is informed participation. Not just voting, not just agitating for this or that change, but thoughtful engagement in self-government. Today’s communication technologies facilitate immediate engagement: Sign the petition to XYZ, telling them to vote for ABC! Join the protest against so-and-so! Don’t let ‘them’ change this program–it’s all that protects grandmas and kittens! We are given tools with which to send a message, but all too often, the message is not based upon a full explanation of the issues involved.

I know there have been several instances where I’ve gotten such a “call to action” that initially seemed appropriate to me, but upon further research into the policies involved, turned out to be promoting a result that was neither practical nor possible. (The federal budget really isn’t like our household budgets–it’s a lot more complicated. Sometimes, well-intentioned programs that are meant to help one population or another have negative unintended consequences that really do need to be addressed. It’s usually more complicated than that email blast would suggest.)

Despite their considerable merits, Facebook and Twitter and all the other methods of rapid communication at our disposal too often get us to fire before we aim.

It’s important to be engaged. It’s important to communicate quickly with our elected representatives when we think they are about to act in ways that will damage important institutions, or harm vulnerable constituencies. Social media allows involved citizens to mobilize others, and to have a much louder and more effective voice than was previously possible. The downside is that the folks most likely to be involved are the partisans, both left and right, who tend to be more ideological than informed.

It’s so easy to click that link and sign your name. Who has time to read up on the arguments, pro and con?

As Captain Picard might say, “Engage!”

 

What Constitutes “Speech”?

This morning’s news included a report on a Virginia lawsuit brought by sheriff’s deputies alleging retaliatory firing in violation of their free speech rights. They claimed they’d been dismissed for supporting the Sheriff’s (unsuccessful) opponent in a recent election.

The law is pretty clear that public employees do not lose their First Amendment rights simply because they work for government. So long as they exercise those rights on their own time, and avoid behaviors that would compromise the terms of their employment, they cannot be punished for expressing political opinions or otherwise engaging in expressive conduct.

Here, the “conduct” was clicking the “like” button on the opponent’s Facebook page. The question before the court was whether “liking” something on Facebook amounted to Free Speech. The Judge said it didn’t, since no actual words were typed.

The Judge was wrong.

The courts have consistently held that the Free Speech clause of the First Amendment protects the expression of an idea. Marching in a parade, saluting–or burning–a flag, and yes, clicking the “like” button on Facebook, all express agreement and endorsement, and are protected expression. The only reason people want to prevent Nazis from marching is that they get the message, loud and clear. Same with flag burning; the message of disdain for our country is what offends us.

Some messages don’t require words.

The Sheriff obviously thought that “liking” his opponent’s page sent a message. And he evidently understood it.

Intellectual Honesty and Facebook

The pitfalls of our new social media environments are widely discussed, if not quite as widely understood. A recent personal experience brought that point home to me rather vividly.

A couple of days ago, I posted an angry comment to Facebook about Joe Lieberman and Ben Nelson, and their apparent willingness to kill health insurance reform. In Lieberman’s case, it’s hard to know what motivates him. Nelson, as I said much less elegantly in my comment, appeared quite willing to trade the lives of the thousands of people who die every year because they don’t have health insurance  for assurances that insurance wouldn’t pay for abortions. I suggested there was a special place in hell for people who would trade away the lives of living, breathing Americans who desperately need access to medical care in order to save an indeterminate number of fetuses.

Admittedly, the language of my comment was not an example of the civility I so often advocate, and criticism on that basis would have been entirely fair. 

Instead, a Facebook “friend” (since “unfriended”) blogged that I had posted a “hate-filled” diatribe about pro-life advocates. That blog post–the accuracy of which could not be verified by anyone not on my Friends list, even if someone were inclined to do so–has subsequently made its way to other venues, morphing along the way into an accusation that I had consigned all anti-choice  people to hell.

Was my original comment uncivil? Yes. Should I have counted to ten before posting it? Yes.  Should I have framed my criticism in a more constructive fashion? Yes. Did I suggest that all anti-choice advocates would rot in hell? Absolutely not.

The moral of this story (aside from the obvious one that I should practice what I preach!) is that people who are ideologically driven will hear what they think you really mean, rather than what you really say, and social networking sites that limit the ability of fair-minded folks to do some independent fact-checking are just one more reason our public divisions continue to grow.