Aug. 1, 2018

Is social media making us less civil? How digital platforms change the way we talk to and connect with each other

UCalgary researchers explore how social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube allow us to stay connected and reach audiences in ways we never could have before – for better or worse.

In the early 1990s, when the modern Internet was beginning to take shape, it was often referred to as the "information superhighway." Connectivity carried with it the promise of democratizing knowledge. Anyone with an Internet connection would have access to all the information ever known, we'd all be smarter and more civilized, and the world would be an infinitely better place.

Fast-forward 20-odd years, and that notion seems quaint. Naïve, even. In the age of flame wars, trolling and "fake news," it seems that people are less informed and more opinionated than ever. It doesn't take long for public debate on any topic to devolve into virtual shouting matches, and a browse through the comments threads of websites that still allow them is enough to make one weep for humanity.

Social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube allow us to stay connected and reach audiences in ways we never could have before, but they're also fertile breeding grounds for bigotry, hate, extremism and misinformation. And because these platforms show us content based on our past behaviour and preferences, we're more likely to live in bubbles, surrounded by others repeating and amplifying the views we already have.

As mass shootings and terror attacks become more commonplace, each new incident is accompanied by the discovery of some dank, dark corner of the Internet where its perpetrators and their ugly motives festered.

Look at the van attack in Toronto in April 2018, after which "incels" became a household word. Incels are a community of angry, misogynistic men who describe themselves as "involuntarily celibate," and its members advocate violence against those they consider popular and sexually active. Incels have carried out a number of high-profile killing sprees, including the 2014 massacre of six people by Elliot Rodger in Isla Vista, California. Accused Toronto van assailant Alek Minassian identified as an incel in his online posts and referred to Rodger as a "Supreme Gentleman" in an apparent tribute shortly before the attack began.

Against this backdrop of chaos and strife, it's easy to become disillusioned about social media and the Internet and their roles in the apparent decline of public discourse.

But is it all bad? What about the power of social media to bring people together for a good cause? Recent history is full of examples of social media sparking positive social change, from #metoo changing attitudes about sexual harassment to the GoFundMe page that raised millions of dollars to support the families of Humboldt Broncos players killed or injured in the horrific team bus crash in April 2018 – the same month as the van attack in Toronto.

A network on demand

"Civic links are so much easier to forge nowadays," says Dr. Maria Bakardjieva, PhD, a professor in the Department of Communication, Media and Film in UCalgary's Faculty of Arts. "Say we follow each other on Twitter, because we both tweet about Calgary politics. Although I don't know you in person, I have an idea of who you are, how you think, where you stand on certain issues, and whether I can trust you."

Because of that familiarity – what Bakardjieva calls "latent links" – when it comes time to do something, people are more likely to respond. "Latent links represent an important infrastructure for actual links," she says. "When you have an idea that lights something up in me, when there is a topical event and you call for action, those latent links congeal quite rapidly and I'm ready to come and join you."

On the flipside, when people are looking to get involved in an issue, they often turn to social media first. For example, they look for Facebook groups to find like-minded people. "In terms of civic engagement, Facebook groups are a very important instrument," says Bakardjieva.

Citing the death of Alan Kurdi, the young Syrian boy who drowned as his family was trying to reach Canada during the 2015 European refugee crisis, Bakardjieva says social media platforms often provide an entry point into activism. "There's a trigger event, like the photo of a little boy's body washed up on shore," she says. "It goes viral, many people are touched and saddened by it and they want to do something. Before, they wouldn't have known where to start. Now, they look for a Facebook group."

While joining a Facebook group or sharing tragic photos online doesn't seem like much of an effort – what's known disparagingly as "clicktivism" or "slacktivism" – Bakardjieva says these activities are often the first step toward taking action in the real world. In the case of Kurdi, the toddler's death not only became a major issue in the Canadian federal election that year, it galvanized public sentiment toward refugees. People organized vigils, funding drives and donations of clothing, food and goods for incoming Syrian families – most of it coordinated online, through social media.

When digital actions become real

Bakardjieva's research looks at how the virtual and physical worlds intersect to produce a successful movement or initiative. "It's a complex model," she says. "Our goal is to see how social or digital media, mainstream media and physical spaces intertwine, and what are the best practices that emerge."

After several high-profile protest movements started and spread on social media before spilling into the streets (think the Arab Spring or Occupy Wall Street), Bakardjieva wanted to see what kind of similar events were taking place in Canada. "These were movements that were touted as being produced by social media," she says. "Some called the Arab Spring 'the Facebook Revolution.' I wanted to investigate the role of social media in an advanced democracy, where we complain that our democracy still isn't participatory enough."

One of the first Canadian initiatives Bakardjieva came across was MLA Playdate. In September 2014, a teachers' strike in British Columbia was delaying the start of the school year. To protest the provincial government's inability to settle the strike, parents brought their children to their local MLA's office for a "play date," since they weren't going to school. Bakardjieva and her co-investigator traced the roots of the initiative to a group of parents who knew each other on Twitter, but not in real life. "The three men who started this met each other for the first time when we went to interview them," she says. "They had organized this almost entirely on social media and on the phone."

Bakardjieva and her team were able to follow how the organizers first came up with the idea and how they spread their message – first on Twitter, then by connecting with popular parenting bloggers who also had large followings. "Then, it suddenly materialized," she says. "These little demonstrations started occurring at MLA offices, then it got infectious and spread around the province."

Part of the appeal for Bakardjieva was that the parents who organized the protests weren't otherwise politically active. "Instead of looking at an established NGO and seeing how they use social media, we wanted to look at real grassroots initiatives," she says. "These were people who had no affiliation with any activist organizations. But this particular issue affected them in their everyday lives. And this initiative gave them a channel to do something about it, to get out and have their voices heard."

Changing the conversation around sexual violence

With the downfalls of Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein, comedian Bill Cosby and a slew of other high-profile men accused (and convicted) of rape and sexual assault, there can be no doubt that social media provides a powerful channel for people to make their voices heard. And that these channels allow us to shine a light on dark topics in ways that we wouldn't have before.

"We're seeing a trend in what I call 'digital disclosures,' where people go online to talk about painful personal experiences, often related to sexual violence," says Dr. Jessalynn Keller, PhD, an assistant professor of critical media studies in UCalgary's Department of Communication, Media and Film. "And they're doing it in a way they wouldn't face-to-face, not even with a close friend."

Under hashtags such as #MeToo, #YesAllWomen, #WhyIStayed, and #BeenRapedNeverReported, millions of people (mostly women) have shared stories of sexual violence, harassment and discrimination. Keller says sharing such secret, traumatic experiences online can be cathartic and lead to positive change.

"There's a lot of public conversation about whether these hashtags are actually changing anything," says Keller. "But they make a huge impact on the lives of people who participate. Some go and report their assault to police, for example. Some get involved in more kinds of activism. Many become more interested in feminist politics, so it becomes an entryway into broader participation."

But it isn't just people who reveal personal experiences who are changed, says Keller. Such disclosures also have positive impact on the people who read them, share them and otherwise participate in the discussion. "We see people becoming more educated on concepts like rape culture," she says. "We see people developing more sophisticated understandings of gender inequality or racism or intersectionality through their online engagements. We see men saying that having these discussions on these platforms is useful in shifting their perspective on things.

"There seems to be a shift in the public discourse around sexual violence. I think that's promising and I hope it leads to a shift in policy and a shift in law." 

A wave of feminism

An increase in online discussions about gender issues is also fuelling an increase in the popularity of feminism, according to Keller. Because the Internet and social media platforms make feminist content more available and easier to find, more people are accessing it and connecting with it.

"We're in this moment where we're seeing the popularization of these kinds of politics," says Keller. "These discourses are circulating more widely. It's spreading into mainstream platforms. For example, Teen Vogue, a mainstream, commercial magazine, has transformed itself into a kind of intersectional feminist, fairly radical publication. We probably wouldn't have seen that 10 years ago."

Which isn't to say that this is the first time feminism has been at the forefront of the public consciousness. "It ebbs and flows," says Keller. "The 1970s were a great example of when feminist discourses were out in public and people were talking about them. There was a lot of this in the early 90s, too, with the Riot Grrrl movement. There's been a long history of feminist activism."

But whereas in the 1970s people organized marches with pamphlets, and in the 1990s they made zines and circulated them at punk rock shows, in the 2010s, they can Tweet and share their stories on Facebook. "The connection that the digital world and these global social media platforms allow for is much greater," says Keller. "Before, girls had to mail a zine if they wanted to get them to the other side of the country. And they did, but that's not nearly in the same scope as posting a tweet that people can see all over the world."

Keller also points out that while the medium is changing, the message hasn't. "A lot of the content was the same as what's being talked about today," she says. "Sexual violence, body image issues, sexuality. It's interesting how persistent these issues are."


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From The Conversation:

Being woke is profitable: Teen Vogue made waves this year

#MeToo campaign brings conversation of rape to the mainstream

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A note of caution

Lest one get the impression that social media is curing the world of all its ills, however, Keller is quick to point out that alongside the rise of popular feminism, other, unsavoury worldviews are also on the rise. "These platforms have been breeding grounds for these amazing feminist publics," she says. "But also for popular misogyny. And Islamophobia. And white supremacy."

Let's also not forget the power of social media in the hands of the wrong people, like when a data analytics company can influence the outcome of an election by targeting messages to networks of people more likely to be receptive. Or when people can unleash an army of fake accounts to target those who oppose them with insults and hateful comments.

After all, the same mechanisms that allow civic connections to congeal and form into an activist network also allow the incels of the world to find each other and share their abhorrent views. Some platforms and forums even make it easier to conceal identities and post anonymously, making people feel more free to say things they never would in person.

"Previously these people would have been isolated, in the closet," says Bakardjieva. "Nowadays, they can identify one another. They have the same entry point to come to the surface and form their echo chamber, which entrenches them and makes them more confident in their positions."

However, says Bakardjieva, while social media also helps fringe groups find each other, that doesn't mean they're anything more than that – fringe groups. 

"Is the world less civil? I think the world has never been more civil. It's just that it's easier for people with similar ideas to find each other and act on their views – including groups with wicked ideologies."

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Dr. Maria Bakardjieva, PhD, is a professor in the Department of Communication, Media and Film in UCalgary's Faculty of Arts. Her research interests are in computer mediated communication, Internet use, media and democracy, new media and society, and social aspects of communication technology. Read more about Maria

Dr. Jessalynn Keller, PhD, is an assistant professor in the Department of Communication, Media and Film in UCalgary's Faculty of Arts. Her research interrogates gender politics and mediated identities within popular digital cultures, particularly in relation to contemporary feminist activism. Read more about Jessalynn

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