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Home > News and views > From the mic to the like

From the mic to the like

Jordan Erica Webber looks at the benefits and dangers of social platforms becoming the podiums in our pockets

#MeToo; #WomensMarch; #BlackLivesMatter – social media is helping many of us to have our voices heard in ways that would have been unimaginable even a few years ago. As we encourage our audiences to tell us what matters to them in our ‘What Would You Speak Out About?’ campaign, journalist Jordan Erica Webber looks at the benefits and dangers of social platforms becoming the podiums in our pockets.

After multiple women accused Hollywood film producer Harvey Weinstein of sexual assault, in October 2017 actor Alyssa Milano took to Twitter: ‘If you’ve been sexually harassed or assaulted write “me too” as a reply to this tweet.’ Tens of thousands of people replied, and the phrase (which was first used in 2006 by civil rights activist Tarana Burke) soon became a hashtag that trended worldwide.

Months later people are still using the hashtag, but its effects reach far beyond Twitter. Men accused of harassment and assault are losing their jobs where before they might have been protected by their employers. Others are apologising publicly for past misconduct instead of keeping quiet. Finally, it looks as if women might be able to look forward to a future in which sexual harassment is truly a thing of the past. Years earlier, social media played a significant role in a different kind of revolution: The Arab Spring. Protestors used Facebook and other social media (in addition to more traditional methods) to organise, and the global reach of social media platforms meant that those involved could get word out to the rest of the world. In the US today, citizens are using social media to organise anti-Trump protests such as the Women’s March, and to teach each other how to contact Congressional representatives.

But the consequences of being able to instantly and directly address a potentially global audience aren’t all positive. For one thing, when the oppressed start to speak up it seems inevitable to expect backlash from their oppressors, and they have ‘podiums in their pockets’ too. One notorious hashtag born in 2014 is #Gamergate, widely recognised as the calling card of a predominantly male hate group who harassed female game developers and feminists keen to develop a more progressive culture in video games.

A threat to democracy?

Harassment on platforms that enable instant access without physical proximity is now so commonplace – UK Prime Minister Theresa May has called for new laws to deal with this ‘threat to our democracy’ – that it’s no wonder people often prefer to engage only with those with whom they share a world view. But the ability to choose who we follow on Twitter and which news sources we read can create echo chambers, where people with similar beliefs repeat those beliefs back to each other, convincing each other further.

Some parties benefit from polarisation, and can use social media to encourage further division. According to reports in The Observer, powerful supporters of both Trump and Brexit may have worked with a company called Cambridge Analytica to use data mined from Facebook to target voters with political adverts

designed to provoke an emotional response. Hidden in individual user’s feeds, these adverts could be unaccountable, and not declared in the same way as other campaign expenditure. This kind of approach could conceivably allow foreign governments to interfere in another country’s democracy, as Russia has been accused of doing with the 2016 US presidential election.

Another threat to democracy lies in ‘fake news’, a phenomenon that has likely been around for as long as actual news but is surely amplified by social media. Here too, we risk foreign interference, as with the Russian Twitter account purporting to belong to a ‘proud Texan and American patriot’ that tweeted a photo of a woman in a hijab on her phone walking past a victim of the 2017 Westminster Bridge attack, along with the words ‘Muslim woman pays no mind to the terror attack’. The same Twitter account, which had 16,000 followers, had previously tweeted in support of Brexit and Trump.

Social media makes it easy to spread false information, whether intentionally or not. In January 2018, an employee of Hawaii’s emergency management agency sent out a false alarm of an imminent missile attack, which was not officially corrected for more than half an hour. The employee, who has since been fired, has not yet been named, but that hasn’t stopped people from looking for someone to blame for the unnecessary panic. And thanks to an archival photo used in some of the news stories, one of his colleagues (on a different island at the time of the incident) came under fire instead, receiving abusive and threatening messages that he ended up taking to the police.

Social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter have become so powerful that refusal to engage with them has itself become a kind of activism; in October 2017 a software engineer called Kelly Ellis started a campaign with the hashtag #WomenBoycottTwitter, encouraging women to sign off for 24 hours in solidarity with victims of harassment who went unsupported by Twitter. The campaign received criticism, however, pointing out that women of colour had received less solidarity than white women, and that going silent seemed counterproductive when women (especially women of colour) are often silenced already. New hashtags arose in response: #WOCAffirmation and #AmplifyWomen.

While this kind of backlash can feel frustrating (after all, it’s natural to feel defensive in response to criticism), it is at least part of a public conversation. Twitter enabled women of colour to voice their concerns about the boycott, and they were heard: Kelly Ellis publicly acknowledged that ‘it’s not ok for solidarity to only be for white women’ and apologised. Progress has been made, and made in a public arena where the conversation is recorded and people are held accountable. Social media is an amplifier: it may feel too loud sometimes, but fundamentally it represents millions – billions – of people talking to each other, using their voices to get things done.

Article first published in Dialogue, Spring 2018 – our monthly members’ magazine

Find out more about Jordan Erica Webber.

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