Some 12 percent of Americans believe that social media platforms have had a positive impact on political discourse, while 63 percent believe it has been negative.
Millions of Americans would rejoice if Donald J. Trump announced that he was shutting down his Twitter account tomorrow to focus on other aspects of his presidency. Yet news that a Twitter employee had the power to singlehandedly shut down the handle of the president should not fill us with joy.
Quite the opposite. The ability to silence the president, even for 11 minutes, is a matter of national concern and should be addressed immediately.
This episode is another symptom of a grave disease spreading across this nation — the breakdown of national civic engagement. And it’s undermining the very foundations of our democracy.
The president himself bears significant responsibility here. Rather than use Twitter as a place to educate, organize and inform, Trump has weaponized the platform to assault his enemies, foreign and domestic. We know the attacks by heart: #Rocketman, #CrookedHillary and #LiddleBobCorker.
Yet, the #TroublewithTwitter is not limited to the 140-character (or 280) utterances of one man.
Social media encourages abuse, particularly around politics and policy. We recently conducted a survey asking about the impact of social media on public discourse: Just 12 percent of Americans believe that social media platforms have had a positive impact on political discourse, while 63 percent believe it has been negative.
As we’ve learned though the Senate Intelligence Committee hearing this week, the Russian government executed a massive plan to undermine the 2016 election. Russian propaganda appeared in our feeds more than 150 million times. It’s clear that more should have been done to prevent this from happening. Both Facebook and Twitter have announced reforms, but does anyone think that this will change the troubling nature of political discourse today?
I, for one, do not.
The sins of social media are manifold, and most of us have contributed to the problem. Social media is a political echo chamber. We outdo each other with incendiary remarks to get the most “Likes,” shares and reposts. Outrage is the name of the game, and trolling is everywhere.
We shouldn’t be naïve here. It’s not like we can turn back the clock to a simpler age that never existed — pointed political rhetoric has been with us since the pamphleteers of the Revolutionary War. But social media’s scalability has accelerated and amplified the speed and spread by orders of magnitude.
Rather than throwing our hands in the air, there are three things that can be done:
First, the social media platforms themselves have a responsibility to do more. This includes building safeguards to prevent individual employees from shutting down handles and accounts, and dealing with the stark cybersecurity concerns that exist. But it goes much beyond that. Ultimately, technology companies have to be open to changing the culture on their platforms. This starts encouraging reasonable public discourse and sidelining haters, trolls and harassment.
Second, our leaders have a social media responsibility. Yes, this includes the president. It’s easy to score political points online by launching the harshest of political attacks, but our leaders must resist that very human impulse. Candidly, I don’t have great optimism here, but change has to start somewhere.
Third, and most importantly, we the people have a responsibility, as well. We must engage in our communities just as much as we engage online. This means volunteering for local organizations, helping out on the campaigns and issues that we support, and building ties with people from other backgrounds, in real life. This is far more constructive than a Twitter fight, and it leads to civic bonds that are harder to break.
Twitter, Facebook and other social media platforms aren’t going anywhere. Indeed, they are incredibly powerful platforms that connect us in unprecedented and innovative ways. But, if we don’t quickly address the challenges they pose, the trouble with these platforms will swamp the good.
And if that happens, we will all be forever trapped in a world of hoaxes, trolls and fake news.
Scott Gerber is a partner and founder of Vrge, a strategic communications firm based in San Francisco and Washington, D.C. He previously served as communications director for Senator Dianne Feinstein and then-Attorney General Jerry Brown. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org Twitter: @scottcgerber.
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Author: Scott Gerber
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