The video begins abruptly. Likely recorded on a phone, the footage is shaky and blurry, yet the subject is sickeningly unmistakeable: a crying infant being repeatedly and violently dunked into a bucket of water. First it is held by the arms, then upside down by one leg, then grasped by the face as an unidentified woman pulls it through the water. Near the end of the video, the infant falls silent, the only remaining audio the splashing of water and murmured conversation as the child is dunked again and again.
When Memories 404
The Internet is forever. Think before you post. Once something is uploaded, it can’t be taken back. These prophetic warnings, parroted in technology literacy PSAs and middle school lectures all over the country, remind us to think about our online presence, to consider what will come up when we Google our name fifteen years from now.
How Social Media Might Silence Debate
According to this study, social media may have a negative impact on political debate. As the opening of the study notes, in the pre-internet era, there is a well documented phenomenon called “The Spiral of Silence” in which people tend not to voice opinions that differ from their friends and family. The intro also notes that:
Some social media creators and supporters have hoped that social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter might produce different enough discussion venues that those with minority views might feel freer to express their opinions, thus broadening public discourse and adding new perspectives to everyday discussion of political issues.
However, it turns out that this may not be the case. It seems that increased activity on social network sites like Facebook and Twitter also have a negative impact on people’s willingness to voice dissenting opinions that they think might be unpopular. It appears that this behavior extends to the offline world as well.
The study involved 1,800 adults, and they focused on getting participants to discuss Edward Snowden’s disclosures of government surveillance programs. Here is a summary of the findings, taken directly from the study.
People were less willing to discuss the Snowden-NSA story in social media than they were in person
86% of Americans were willing to have an in-person conversation about the surveillance program, but just 42% of Facebook and Twitter users were willing to post about it on those platforms.
Social media did not provide an alternative discussion platform for those who were not willing to discuss the Snowden-NSA story. Of the 14% of Americans unwilling to discuss the Snowden-NSA story in person with others, only 0.3% were willing to post about it on social media.
In both personal settings and online settings, people were more willing to share their views if they thought their audience agreed with them. For instance, at work, those who felt their coworkers agreed with their opinion were about three times more likely to say they would join a workplace conversation about the Snowden-NSA situation.
Previous ‘spiral of silence’ findings as to people’s willingness to speak up in various settings also apply to social media users. Those who use Facebook were more willing to share their views if they thought their followers agreed with them. If a person felt that people in their Facebook network agreed with their opinion about the Snowden-NSA issue, they were about twice as likely to join a discussion on Facebook about this issue.
Facebook and Twitter users were also less likely to share their opinions in many face-to-face settings. This was especially true if they did not feel that their Facebook friends or Twitter followers agreed with their point of view. For instance, the average Facebook user (someone who uses the site a few times per day) was half as likely as other people to say they would be willing to voice their opinion with friends at a restaurant. If they felt that their online Facebook network agreed with their views on this issue, their willingness to speak out in a face-to-face discussion with friends was higher, although they were still only 0.74 times as likely to voice their opinion as other people.
What do you all think? Does this give us reason to think the social media participationg silences debate, as this New York Times discussion of the study suggests? What should we do in light of this?
Social Media, Social Change
When a bandwagon social media trend arises, the critics are certain to follow. Last week, while the Supreme Court heard two cases on gay marriage, a separate discussion was taking place on the Internet. An estimated 2.7 million users changed their Facebook profile picture to the Human Rights Campaign’s symbol for marriage equality. Chances are you’ve seen this image or some clever variation of it—maybe you displayed the image as your profile picture too. Using this image was an act of support for the LGBT community, a perfectly harmless statement advocating for their right to marriage equality—or so many people thought. As this trend quickly took over the sphere of social media, it was the subject of both praise and controversy.
Many people were displeased that the HRC promoted this image when they have come under fire for injustices related to the LGBT community. In 2007, they excluded transgendered people when backing the Employment Non-Discrimination Act. In recent years, the HRC has also been involved in supporting major corporations, which seems rather contrary to their goals as an organization striving for equality. Derrick Clifton’s article for the Huffington Post goes into greater detail about the criticism surrounding the HRC and its involvement with the marriage equality debate. It’s my guess that most people who shared the image had no idea of the controversies surrounding the HRC. I know I wasn’t familiar with them. How does this affect the act of posting their image on Facebook and other social media outlets?
Though I didn’t change my own profile picture, I saw dozens of my friends change theirs, and I generally saw it as a good act. The intention behind it was in support and solidarity of an important cause. Changing your profile picture not only implies this support, but also that you want other people to know what side you’re on. And it’s a great way to discover just how much people care about this issue—with all the buzz about this little red and white equal sign, clearly it’s a matter of great significance among the population. With benevolent intention backing this mass trend, I don’t think the HRC’s mistakes, though disappointing, detract from the message inherent in spreading this image. The image itself is secondary to the belief that all couples have the right to get married, and it is that belief that is really at the root of posting the photo.
Still, there are a couple of things to consider when you observe or partake in any given trend like this. One, be as informed as you can be. Know what it is you’re standing for, do your own research, and reflect on your own beliefs about the issue at hand (i.e. don’t just conform to the fad because you want some Facebook “likes”). Two, don’t let your action stop there. In all honesty, the Supreme Court doesn’t care so much about your new profile picture. Sure, it’s a nice statement and collectively shows that millions of people care, but make sure you’re living out your beliefs aside from the realm of social media. Don’t let it become irrelevant once it’s no longer trendy and the image disappears from your news feed, keep the momentum going. Seek out ways to get involved on campus. For example, the student-run organization United DePauw is dedicated to promoting awareness of LGBT issues, and it’s open to all students regardless of sexuality. Attending some of their meetings and events would be a great way to further the conversation beyond your computer screen.
In regards to gay marriage, one of the most fervent debates of modern times, I think advocacy for the issue will continue to grow stronger. As it does, keep yourself up to date on the ongoing discussion. If you change your profile picture, do so thoughtfully and purposefully because it represents what you believe in—in doing this, it shouldn’t matter what the critics think.