- Social media has gradually overtaken television and print media as the primary medium for most people to get news and information.
- When new technologies emerge, there are often serious and unintended ramifications.
- Twitter’s platform in particular is biased and promotes the spread of redundant, emotional and uncivil discourse, and is now a breeding ground for hatred and violence.
- Social media companies must be held accountable for not taking action earlier against the inflammatory rhetoric that widely existed on their platforms before the Capitol siege.
- Brian L. Ott is a professor, communications expert and author of The Twitter Presidency, the first book-length academic study of President Trump’s rhetoric and his use of Twitter.
- This is an opinion column. The thoughts expressed are those of the author.
- Visit the Business Insider homepage for more stories.
The 20th century literary scholar and philosopher Kenneth Burke once wrote that “the conventional forms demanded by one age are also resolutely rejected by another. “
Burke’s argument was that the ever-changing nature of communications technology continually alters the forms of speech that dominate our information landscape.
Over the past 10 years, the world has undergone a radical change in this regard, as social media has gradually supplanted television and print media as the primary means for most citizens to engage in current affairs and news. information.
It’s more than just moving messages from one medium or platform to another.
Messages are fundamentally shaped and transformed by the way they are distributed and circulated. They adopt the defining characteristics of the underlying technology used to transmit them.
So, for example, when television rose to prominence in the 1980s, the nature of our public communication became much more image and entertainment based. Today, the rise and growing influence of social media has also changed the form of messages that circulate widely in society.
As i suggested somewhere else, Twitter’s platform is specifically defined by the structural biases of simplicity, impulsiveness and incivility. While these biases do not completely determine the content produced on these platforms, they do have a significant impact on the types of messages that are amplified there.
Fundamentally, Twitter is biased towards circulating reductionist, emotional and uncivil talk.
This has led to a proliferation of vitriol and hatred on these platforms, which in turn has fueled violence.
The consequences of this were especially clear in the wake of the armed attack on our nation’s Capitol last week and the clear role social media platforms played in the planning and execution of this attack.
As is often the case when new technologies emerge, they begin to have serious unanticipated ramifications.
The proliferation of social media on the internet has been touted by many as a great force for democratization where all voices can be heard. But over time, it has become increasingly clear that these platforms tend to promote divisive and dangerous discourse.
It’s not just that this kind of talk exists on these platforms, it’s that the structural biases of these platforms ensure that messages of hate, violence and disinformation spread faster and more widely.
All this begs the question:
What social responsibilities do the companies that operate these platforms have to protect users and citizens from the potential dangers they represent?
Until a week ago, social media platforms were reluctant and slow to take on great responsibility.
But that seems untenable following the events of the past week. Platforms like Facebook and Twitter have long benefited from the circulation of disinformation, disinformation and extremist rhetoric.
Not surprisingly, these companies have come under intense public scrutiny in response. Fearing long-term damage to their public image, they began to take more meaningful steps to stop the spread of dangerous information (whether it be propaganda, conspiracy, hate or calls for violence. ).
While I applaud the decision by Facebook, Twitter, and other social media platforms to ban Trump and his most violent supporters over the past few days, we should ask ourselves what has taken so long.
These platforms were well aware of the seditious activity and inflammatory rhetoric that widely existed on their platforms prior to the attack on Capitol Hill.
Why didn’t they take stronger action sooner? They need to be held accountable for their slow response, as must companies that will no doubt emerge in an attempt to circumvent recent moves by dominant social media companies.
The solutions to the problems created through the structural biases of social media platforms don’t lie solely in the companies that operate and profit from them, of course.
The citizens also bear part of the responsibility here.
Going forward, it is absolutely crucial that we help the public critically assess the information they consume in these contexts.
Educators and the media have some responsibility in this regard.
We need information literacy courses at all levels of education, and we need an information medium ready to qualify our confrontational and dangerous speech in all its forms.
But above all, we need citizens to come to a difficult realization: social media is not well suited for producing informed citizenship.
Nor is it well suited to the goals and processes of deliberative democracy, which relies on sustained, sophisticated, civil and reasoned discourse.