Tag Archives: twitter

Weaponizing Social Media

The already ample commentary directed at our “Tweeter-in-Chief” grew more copious–and pointed–in the wake of Trump’s “Morning Joe” attacks and the bizarre visual of him “body slamming” CNN.

John Cassidy’s essay in the New Yorker was consistent with the general tenor of those reactions, especially his conclusion:

Where America, until recently, had at its helm a Commander-in-Chief whom other countries acknowledged as a global leader and a figure of stature even if they didn’t like his policies, it now has something very different: an oafish Troll-in-Chief who sullies his office daily.

Most of the Cassidy piece focused on Trump’s addiction to–and childish use of–Twitter, and it is hard to disagree with his observation that the content of these messages is “just not normal behavior.” Thoughtful people, those not given to hyperbole or ad hominem attacks, are increasingly questioning Trump’s mental health.

The paragraph that struck me, however, was this one, because it raises an issue larger than the disaster in the White House:

Trump’s online presence isn’t something incidental to his Presidency: it is central to it, and always has been. If the media world were still dominated by the major broadcast networks and a handful of big newspapers, Trump would most likely still be hawking expensive apartments, building golf courses, and playing himself in a reality-television series. It was the rise of social media, together with the proliferation of alternative right-wing news sites, that enabled Trump to build a movement of angry, alienated voters and, ultimately, go from carnival barker to President.

Unpack, for a moment, the observation that social media and alternative “news” made Trump possible.

John Oliver recently aired a worrisome segment about Sinclair Broadcasting, a “beneath the radar” behemoth which is on the verge of a $3.9 billion merger with Tribune Media. That merger would significantly consolidate ownership of local television outlets, including one in Indianapolis. Oliver showed clips demonstrating Sinclair’s extreme right-wing bias–bias that, as Oliver pointed out– is in the same category as Fox News and Breitbart.

It’s damaging enough when radio talk shows, television networks and internet sites peddle falsehoods and conspiracy theories. What truly “weaponizes” disinformation and propaganda, however, is social media, where Facebook “friends” and twitter followers endlessly repeat even the most obvious fantasies; as research has shown, that repetition can make even people who are generally rational believe very irrational things.

When NASA has to issue an official denial that it is operating a child slave colony on Mars, we’re in unprecedented times.

I don’t have research to confirm or rebut my theory, but I believe that Americans’ loss of trust in our government–in our institutions and those elected and/or appointed to manage them–has made many people receptive to “alternative” explanations for decisions they may not like or understand. It couldn’t be that the people making that decision or crafting that legislation simply see the situation differently. It couldn’t be that public servant A is simply wrong; or that those making decision B had access to information we don’t have. No–they must be getting paid off. They must be working with other enemies of righteousness in a scheme to [fill in the blank].

No wonder it is so difficult to get good people to run for public office. In addition to good faith disagreements about their performance, they are likely to be accused of corrupt motives.

The other day, I struck up a discussion with a perfectly nice woman–a former schoolteacher. The talk turned to IPS, and she was complimentary about the schools with which she was familiar. She was less complimentary about the district’s charter schools–a position I understand. (It’s a mixed bag. Some are excellent, some aren’t, and they certainly aren’t a panacea for what ails education.)

All perfectly reasonable.

Then she confided to me that the Superintendent “gets a bonus” for every contract he signs with a Charter school. In other words, it’s all about the money. It couldn’t be that the school board and superintendent want the best for the children in the district and–right or wrong– simply see things differently.

Our daughter is on that school board, and I know for a fact that the Superintendent does NOT get bonuses for contracting with charter schools.  When I shared this exchange with our daughter, she regaled me with a number of other appalling, disheartening accusations that have grown and festered on social media.

I don’t have a remedy for our age of conspiracy. Censorship is clearly not an answer. (In the long run,  education can help.) But if we don’t devise a strategy for countering radio and television propaganda and the fever swamps of social media–the instruments that gave us Trump–we’ll be in an increasingly dangerous world of hurt.

 

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!”