Social Media & Violence in Today’s News Headlines

I was honored to be invited to WSB-TV Atlanta’s Town Hall Meeting July 19, 2016. The focal topic named is violence in today’s headlines, and my requested role was to speak on the role of social media therein. Below are my own opinions gathered prior to that event as reflection and preparation.

“Through our scientific genius we have made of the world a neighborhood. Now, through our moral and spiritual genius, we must make of it a brotherhood.” – MLK, Jr.


Ever since social media hit the web, it has amplified the voice of anyone with an opinion. This is important because the voices previously preached to the public were institutional – with institutional qualifications. Today institutions are dwarfed by the power of individual opinions – just look at the history of journalism in the last 20 years in favor of “the man (or woman) on the street” with their cameras, phones and tweets. Not only have institutional statements been dwarfed by individuals with the megaphone that is social media, but the demand for speed has taken over – we all want to see or hear the first voice on the seen. Thanks to social media, again, individuals have taken over; the “groundswell” as one of the original landmark books on social media, of the same name, called it.


In shifting away from institutional voices, opinions have taken over. We all choose our social media friends and followings because we care about (and often agree with) their opinions. The phenomenon here is that we chose the nature of the content we see by choosing who we read or watch.


The original power of social media was that we could be exposed to new voices – beyond those of the scripted institutions – we could find/read/see anyone’s voices. It gives everyone with an opinion a megaphone. But it’s too much – too much noise. We have had to apply filters so as not to drown. The very asset of social media has become its greatest threat. So today there are anti-cyber-bullying programs. More and more companies and schools have adopted social media policies. Athletes are instructed to ignore social media before major events to not be raddled by hate posts. Europe has aggressive programs in this venue. Europe also consistently takes on Google and privacy issues by increasing restrictions on Google there in the name of protecting individuals’ identities and rights. And of course China is extremely restrictive with social media – barring Facebook, Google and other channels. Somewhere in all of these approaches is a way to not let social media content unjustly hurt the people whose opinions, or the receiving ends of opinions, exist there.


In an important piece of social media history, in 2006 the Time Magazine Person of the Year was “You;” representing the power of individual voices in social media. Another critical piece of social media history was the 2008 Obama election campaign. It was instrumental in that the campaign utilized social media, in unprecedented ways, to disseminate information to a mass of people (especially younger audiences who were primary users in social media at the time) and invite them to “contribute to the conversation.” The large reach, and re-shared messages, helped win the campaign for President Obama. Because of the freshness and novelty of social media, our minds seemed to view social content with more openness and fewer filters. Fast forward to 2011, again social media was instrumental – to the Time Magazine person of the year as “The Protestor: From the Arab Spring to Athens, from Occupy Wall Street to Moscow.” Social media’s role was critical as the means to instantly message followers to organize specific protest events.


One of the early labels for social media was “the democratization of the web.” The amazing thing being that that was before social media was instrumental in aiding the toppling of governments and national social involvements. In this vein, social media can represent an element of anarchy: So a question for us to ask when using social media is, are we endorsing valuable fixes to the systems around us, or pure upheaval for its own sake?


Social media is critical for analysis both as personal content and neutral technology platforms. We the people chose social media – we chose to have the exposure to everybody’s input, but we haven’t learned how to deal with it. We aren’t ready for what all those voices bring – it’s too much – and we drown. So we’ve applied filters by obviously choosing who we “Like” and who we don’t in social messages and followings. All of the sudden, today, the vehicle which should have given us insights into so many people different than ourselves, has suddenly been used to give us opinions almost exclusively from people like ourselves. Another label for the web and its content in the era of social media has been the “infinite niche.” To drown out the infinite voices, we’ve focused on our niches – hearing only the voices of our one side on social platforms. How many of us, in this election alone, have “unfriended” or blocked posts by posters with political opinions contrary to our own? If so you are not alone. In studies, politics is considered one of the primary reasons users unfriend others in social networking channels. Social media has proven its power and consequences in this regard. The million dollar question is, do you ever unfollow people with the same political opinions you have…


This is not exclusively the fault of the users – the social media platforms themselves improve their algorithms every year to serve us the very content we want to see. For example “semantic content” is digital content served on our social walls based on our psychographics – the information about our interests, desires and beliefs. Semantic and psychographics-based algorithms improve all the time – helping refuel our own interests. You may remember a few months ago the RNC accused Facebook and its employees of allowing bias to enter into their decisions on the “trending” content and topics served to users in Facebook (not to mention the many people who have sued Facebook for enabling published content and plans consequently resulting in individuals’ injuries and deaths). The irony being that any “objectivity” on the part of Facebook also means we continue to be surrounded by our own biases and preferred content. Likewise, Facebook and other giant social networks always want to be like the latest hot social channels. Because instant-video channel Snapchat grew in popularity, and because of Twitter’s Periscope live-video app, Facebook incorporated Facebook Live videos (which then empowered the live video feeds of recent protests and deaths). Suddenly everyone is exposed to autoplay technology and live videos. And because social media algorithms are in part influenced by “Trending Topics,” on our walls, topics such as recent shootings or protests-gone-bad may be the primary topical content. 25 years ago the old news stand or diversity of TV channels provided a wealth of content topics. But staring at our social media walls, for reasons of our followings and/or social algorithms, it may seem that that diversity is gone from our “media communications” today.


For example the topic #BlackLivesMatter has achieved national visibility, multiple content contributors across multiple channels, etc. Because it’s a hashtag, anyone can click on that hashtag to read additional opinions on the topic (and usually in favor) of that “opinion campaign.” Those who have contrary opinions can either not click on it, unfollow or block those posters or search for the hashtag #AllLivesMatter (or even the unfortunate trending hashtag #BlackLivesDontMatter). Recent consumer (opposition) posts on the #BlackLivesMatter hashtag are heavily negative or even opposed to the original idea. And this is the reality of social media and especially hashtag campaigns – at the end of the day, the public owns them. The public re-writes them. Anyone can post whatever they wish to whatever hashtag. It becomes what they want – not the original author’s. Starbucks found this out the hard way by publishing a campaign called #RaceTogether in 2015 surrounding race-related deaths then. But it backfired from original intent – consumers posted negative and anti-Starbucks sentiments. So the institutional intent and voice is lost in the noise. In decades past, communications media representatives have raised questions in order to “get people to start talking about issues and asking the questions.” But today, is there too much of that? Has social media become the vehicle to only listen to and regurgitate our own side rather than listen to other views?


Then the question is hard to clarify: What is the role, the nature, of social media? In these contexts, is social media the message conveying the protests and crimes? Is it the technology platform for the responses and responsive action? Or is it merely an innocent blank canvas, the mirror upon which all of our inner thoughts are finally reflected and shown to the world? And to what degree are the owners and maintainers of the specific social networks responsible for consequences?


What distinguished social media since early on, from other media, was the power of multi-way communications. Technically, defining characteristics of social media have included: Creating, Sharing, Bookmarking (think Reddit), Commenting, Tagging, Ratings/Reviews (in recent years there has been a focus on the instantaneous). However the ways we use and perceive social media channels distinguish them. For example, technically, video channels like YouTube and Vimeo and even Periscope meet the functional requirements just like instagram or snapchat. Wikipedia is user-generated content (and it’s riddled with errors, accordingly). But because more of us use these types of channels constantly to view, rather than create content, most of us don’t think of video and wiki channels as “social media.” Instead wikis and blogs look like traditional news and encyclopedia sites. And video channels tend to be watched like traditional television. Meanwhile television, thanks to streaming, AppleTV devices and channels like Netflix, take on consumer ratings and reviews social capabilities. Social media experts are constantly trying to explain and re-draw the categories and descriptions based on primary uses of social networks and apps.


Point being, there is a wealth of content out there. And the lines have been eliminated between educated, and non-educated, opinions and facts. So many “articles” shared on social media turn out to be bogus – false statements, changed facts – mere link bait for ad revenue and nothing more. But before readers could identify an article as false, they already agreed with it and shared it to hundreds of others who would go through the same motions. I must confess I have fallen prey to this myself. With speed of content delivery, time for research and meditation is reduced. Immediate opinions fuel immediate action.


Social media, since its advent, has had an important role in social public events – and much of the time it has been a positive role. Social media is natural for this since it has a wide reach and can be a sharing platform for multiple voices. It has also been successfully used for fundraising and volunteer recruitment. In 1998 the US government founded a website for social collaboration which proved to be one of the major foundations of social media: ScoreCard. This site allowed people in a city to raise awareness and comment on pollution areas and inspire volunteers to voice their observations on the site and help clean up. More recently, the rapidly growing app Line, a texting and photo customization app, started as a platform to facilitate and aid people’s necessary communications in the aftermath of the 2011 tsunami and earthquake in Japan.


Inspiration and mobilization have built social media groups – and their corresponding physical events. This represents another label and property of social media: “self organization.” Sites and mobile apps such as travel sites, Travelocity, AirBNB and Uber have replaced traditional travel agencies and taxi companies. Yet these channels again offer the functionality requirements of social media. We can contribute to and share user reviews – but again, typical users don’t consider these to be “social media.” The fact that they are built on “self organization” (you create and organize your vacation, your ride route, etc.), doesn’t change our perception here.


But what do we think of as social media? Channels such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, Pinterest, LinkedIn. Because of the properties of user-creation, opinion influence and self-organization, these channels can take on the properties of the aforementioned. And their power. Suddenly, we have people influencing via video, and organizing others in social media. Running on immediate, non-pre-meditated, raw emotion. Capable of quickly and easily mobilizing a group based on message reach to those of like opinions. Who then share it to their followers of similar likes, interests and opinions. Inspired event ideas then become real events we see in Periscope and Facebook and then YouTube.


Social media is based on freedom of expression. Unfortunately that instrument has caused a lot of pain and we haven’t figured out how to control it. And we all fall down…


Thanks for reading, Jake Aull