Almost everyone agrees that social media is bad.
Depending on who you ask, Twitter is either the world’s largest outrage machine or a brain-hacking addiction device or just a den of time-wasting frivolity.
Our perceptions of social media have evolved a ton in a relatively short amount of time.
At the beginning of the previous decade, as the Arab Spring was unfolding, social media was seen as a liberating tool for democratic activists. By the end of the decade, against the backdrop of Brexit and Trump’s election, it was seen as a playground for Russian bots and political provocateurs.
But the tide may be shifting once again.
Sarah Jackson, a communications professor at the University of Pennsylvania, has what is now a contrarian take. In a recent article for the New York Times (and a forthcoming book), she defends social media as a force for positive change over the last decade or so.
“As we enter 2020, powerful individuals and societal problems can no longer avoid public scrutiny,” Jackson writes. “Many people who lacked public platforms 10 years ago — the young and members of marginalized groups in particular — are speaking up, insisting on being heard.”
My views on Twitter (and social media in general) are mixed, so I reached out to Jackson to hear her case. We discussed how Twitter has helped democratize society, why the elevation of marginal voices is important, and what, if anything, she would do to change the role of Twitter in public life.
A lightly edited transcript of our conversation follows.
Is Twitter actually good for us?
One of the things that I attempted to do in that New York Times piece and in all my work on social activism is clarify that I don’t actually believe technologies are good or evil. I think technologies are tools. So it is not that I think that Twitter as a platform is inherently good or bad.
My focus is on the good that people have done with media tools like Twitter, and the good people could do with it. So when I argue that Twitter has made us better, I’m not giving Twitter, the corporation, credit for anything. And in fact, Twitter, as a company, could do many, many things better.
But the point I’m making is that ordinary people have used Twitter to challenge us to think differently, to tell their stories, people who have typically not been heard through other media channels or platforms. So the extent that it’s opened up the public space to new voices and new perspective, it’s made us better and more democratic.
We’ll get to the social impact, but I’ll just ask up front: On a more individual level, do you worry that technologies like Twitter are just bad for our brains and basically addiction-generating machines. Do you think the social or political benefits of Twitter outweigh that?
It’s an important question, but it’s just not something I’ve done much research on. The cognitive impacts are definitely real, though. One thing I would say is that we’ve heard similar fears at virtually every point in history when new media technologies were introduced. From the printing press to television, there was always lots of panic about the psychological or cultural implications. So I tend to be a little skeptical that digital technologies are going to be any worse for us than previous technologies.
Fair enough. Let’s get back to the core of your argument. The elevation of marginal voices seems like the best case for Twitter, but is there any evidence that this has translated into concrete political victories for the people who now have a voice?
I think the answer depends on how you define a concrete victory. Consider something like the Me Too movement. What was the concrete impact? Did it change our laws? Did it make it easier to hold people accountable? Did it change the platforms of people running for office? Did it change how companies hire and train people?
It certainly had an impact on many of these fronts, but it’s very difficult to measure. How do you measure the impact of holding people like Harvey Weinstein or Bill Cosby accountable? It’s very difficult. And yet there’s no doubt that the cultural significance is incredibly important. We’re now having more public conversations about issues we never did before. So it has changed the way society recognizes and deals with these issues. I’d call that a “concrete” victory.
I’d say the same thing about the Black Lives Matter movement. Social media was crucial to this project and we’ve seen some very concrete policy results that came out of this activism, like the increasing deployment of body cameras on police officers. And politicians and mainstream media have been forced to grapple with the underlying grievances, and the result has been more people held accountable for crimes that were largely ignored in years past.
And so again, we can’t say and I wouldn’t say that a hashtag directly caused X. But what we can say is the conversation that the nation started having and the shift of attention that led presidential candidates and media elites and others to be suddenly focused on this question of police brutality contributed to the X or to the Y.
I recently interviewed Jen Schradie, author of The Revolution that Wasn’t. Her argument is that social media was initially a boon for democratic activists, but that the gap in resources and organizational capacity have gradually undercut working-class movements and marginal voices and instead bolstered authoritarian groups and people with more power.
Is she missing something?
I’m aware of Jen’s book, and it’s quite good. My response is pretty nuanced. It’s absolutely true that those with power and resources are able to leverage technology in their favor. That’s always been true, and it’s still true today. What I would say is that despite the fact that those in power can and do stifle dissenting voices, those who are creating the dissent are still doing it, and they’re doing it more effectively than before. They’re creating the dissenting discourse and it’s having an impact. That’s worth celebrating.
So I don’t think my work and Schradie’s work are contradictory at all. I actually think that our work can be read alongside each other and we can be nuanced about the full impact of these platforms. These technological tools are abused, and powerful people are constantly getting better at exploiting them.
But ordinary people, despite the odds, are exploiting these tools at the same time. They’re challenging power and altering the discourse in all kinds of ways.
I guess I see Twitter as a double-edged sword. On the one hand, you’re right: It offers a platform to more people and opens up the public sphere to more voices. On the other hand, it creates more chaos in the information space and empowers bad-faith actors looking to exploit it.
Is that a trade-off you think we should accept because, in the end, it at least offers the potential to mobilize against power or injustice?
I wouldn’t say it’s an acceptable trade-off. The problem of online harassment and hate speech, for example, is real, and Twitter and other technological platforms haven’t done enough to protect users. The question of trolling and fake accounts and manipulation and all that kind of stuff is something we have to address.
At the same time, there are limitations to what these companies will do. They exist to make money, not to serve democratic ideals. They want more people using their platforms and everything else is secondary. So we can’t expect Twitter to be altruistic or just.
If these companies get better at policing their own platforms, we could have more and better good stuff and less toxicity. I’d say we’re making very slow progress, and a lot of it is because ordinary people are making demands of the companies and forcing them to change their policies.
But in the meantime, I continue to believe that it’s a good thing that Twitter, totally by accident, became a place where African Americans are overrepresented as compared to other media outlets. And as a result, you can now log onto Twitter and learn about a world and a culture in a different framework, and that diversity is a huge gain for society.
I think one case for having a less saturated information space is that it’s just easier to navigate our shared reality. As you said, for all the positive voices Twitter has elevated, it’s also empowered racists and trolls and provocateurs and authoritarian governments.
In the end, though, if we want to live in a genuine democracy, we have to build a free society in which everyone has the ability to speak. It may just be that the transition from a world of gatekeepers to a world of wide open communication will be bumpy and difficult.
I think that’s absolutely right. Journalism is crucial to democracy. But my point is always that we need more nuance in these public conversations. And I think it’s important to say that allowing ordinary people to tell their own stories and report their version of news isn’t a threat to journalism.
In a democracy, a public sphere is essential. We need a public space where ordinary people can come together face and build communal understandings, debate the ethics and values and norms of the society with one another, without it having to be mediated by an institution or by someone in power. This is good for democracy, and Twitter, at its best, is part of this.
If you could change anything about how Twitter works, what would it be?
This isn’t specifically about Twitter, but one of my greatest concerns is access. If we want people to be able to continue to use technology towards democratic ends, we have to have net neutrality because otherwise only the wealthy can afford the best internet, only corporations can control what you see in search results. And that’s just bad for democracy and it only paves the way for more disinformation and corruption.
As for Twitter specifically, I would just repeat that they’ve been very slow to ban Nazis from the platform. People will say, “Well, it’s free speech. People can say what they want.” But Twitter is a private media corporation, not the government. They can absolutely determine what’s acceptable on their platform and what isn’t. So these tech companies need to figure out where they stand in terms of their values on these issues.
One thing I wish is that these companies weren’t such technological determinists. I wish they didn’t believe that they could use algorithms and more technology to solve these sorts of problems. This is a question of values, not technology. They have to decide what they stand for and not hide behind “free speech” or technical excuses.