Social Media Can Be Oppressive

And I’m not sure how to fix that. I realize this sounds odd from someone who has had a blog for almost fifteen years, and also has been on Twitter for a long time (though I’ve logged into my Facebook page a total of five times–I don’t use Facebook). I’m also not reacting to something like my own #BretBug scandal. But I think the left, construed very broadly, needs to figure out what to do about social media, because they are and have been (more about that in a bit) powerful tools for the right, especially the racist right (though these days, is there any other kind of significant right…).

This, about European violence towards immigrants, came across the transom recently (boldface mine):

But the greatest facilitator of race-hatred against refugees isn’t a tabloid; it’s Facebook. Researchers at the University of Warwick recently studied every anti-refugee attack – 3,335, over two years – in Germany. They found that among the strongest predictors of the attacks was whether the attackers are on Facebook. The social network aids the dissemination of rumours, such as that all refugees are welfare cheats or rapists; and, unmediated by gatekeepers or editors, the rumours spread, and ordinary people are roused to violence. Wherever Facebook usage rose to one standard deviation above normal, the researchers found, attacks on refugees increased by 50%. When there were internet outages in areas with high Facebook usage, the attacks dropped significantly.

While the left has used social media to organize and raise awareness–in no small part because the left is too often excluded from mainstream media and because left-ish organizations, on the whole, are in disarray and unable (or unwilling) to mobilize supporters–it’s worth remembering that the internet has always had a strong, if not dominant, right-wing tilt. During the Iraq War, the internet discussion was largely supportive of the war. In the early to mid-2000s, it was, unfortunately, Drudge and not digby who ruled the Gang of 500’s world (we would be in a better place if we listened to digby; still true today). To a considerable extent, the Netroots was a reaction to the rightwing internet (and it fell apart for multiple reasons). So the social media ecosystem–and I’m including blogs in this–has never been a strong point for the left (again, lots of behavior* on the left-ish side of things contributes to this).

Moreover, the left seems absolutely hapless in using social media. I’ll focus on Twitter, since that’s what I know best. Take for instance the hate retweet. This is so stupid. Twitter’s algorithms don’t care if you like or hate something, they just care that you ‘interact’ with it. Stop doing that. If you feel the overwhelming need to respond to something stupid, especially if it’s someone with a low follower count, screenshot it if you must–in 2019, it’s really easy to do (i.e., you want to show your work). Most people don’t use the chronological follower timeline, so all you’re doing is amplifying assholes. While most people will look at the recipient and conclude ‘what an asshole’, a small percentage will think, ‘they’re on to something.’ Arguably, there’s an exception to be made if you’re going to tweet a long debunking, but if you’re not doing that, then you’re just helping assholes via algorithm.

In other words, Twitter loves the ratio.

Second, to the extent it is possible to use social media for good, not evil, be smart about how you communicate. Most of the scientists on my timeline would agree that it’s much harder to give a twelve minute talk than a half-hour long talk because you have to figure out what not to say. Brevity is really hard (e.g., HAVE YOU READ MY BLOG? Snare drum, please…). Worse, calling out broad groups on the left (or center) never helps, it only inflames:

What I would encourage–which like my voting recommendations, probably only means I might follow this advice–is that we argue with specifics. That is, generic statements about liberals, BernieBros, Betoheads, and so on serve very little purpose other than to inflame and troll*. If someone said something stupid, link to it (or at least screenshot it if you’re avoiding the trolls) and argue the specifics. Avoiding terms like liberal, which are vague and, importantly, mean different things to different people, helps too. If you’re going to make statements about electability**, back it up with polling data.

That brings me to the second plea–show your work. Statements about ‘group X will never support group Y’ and so on are rarely supported by data, but instead, reflect what the (shit)poster believes should be. If you’re going to make statements about policy, back it up.

Third, be honest about your assumptions and biases. One annoying thing during 2016 was the incessant proxy arguments. If you can’t support a candidate because of their views on a given issue (e.g., gun control, votes on war, the environment, reproductive health, economic policy), then just say that. Much of the idiotic back and forth could have been avoided if people had honestly said ‘I can’t vote for candidate X because of issue Y’, or ‘this issue is where I go all in.’ It would certainly have made things clearer.

I’m not sure what do on the whole about social media, as I’m becoming increasingly convinced they do far harm politically** than good. Obviously, shutting them down isn’t practical, but something needs to change.

*For example, lefty bloggers–who circa 1990s would have been called liberal Democrats–have never received the financial support compared to the right (and the death of ad revenue only exacerbated this problem). Nor are they viewed as an integral part of the left-wing media ecosystem (mainstream Democrats despise what used to be called the Netroots).

**Science twitter is actually pretty good! (usually)

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