It’s difficult not to think about social media all the time, but it’s been one of the few things on my mind for the past week with what’s happening at Mizzou and now the slew of global tragedies.
Mizzou: The Power & Threat of Social Media
On Monday, I was shocked (truly and pleasantly shocked) to hear that Tim Wolfe, President of the University of Missouri, had resigned. I was reading wave after wave of Facebook posts about Mizzou, about the power of students’ voices, about the necessity of finding allies and forming partnerships with other people in power who can forward your cause, about the symbolic victory of this resignation and how it might be a model for students at other universities who are calling for change.
I always talk—with my friends and with my students—about how the loudest voices (rather than the most careful voices) are often the ones that we hear most clearly. Of course, there’s been a lot of loud backlash, and social media is the perfect platform for sharing it: “Conservatives Lash Out at University of Missouri Students: ‘Mob,’ ‘Thugs,’ ‘Douchebags’” and “Mizzou Students Evacuating Campus Tonight Due to Death Threats” and “‘Grow up,’ Tweets Former Mizzou Star to Students Who Slammed ‘Hero’ Professor.”
First things first: if there’s a social media award for most vile platform, I’m sure Yik Yak will win for 2015. On my campus, we had our own run-in with an “anonymous” threat to the student population only a few days after the Umpqua shooting in early October. Different conservative media outlets began weighing in about how white privilege actually means being forced to give up your job. Donald Trump said something (tbh, I didn’t click the link). Instructors resigned after telling their black students not to give in to “bullies.” And whereas most of the actual organizing at Mizzou took place face-to-face (of course, there was the #ConcernedStudent1950 tag on Twitter, and that’s how many of us learned about Jonathan Butler’s hunger strike and student protests), the backlash mainly took place on social media. The Washington Post article linked above, if you can bear to read the whole thing, poses an interesting critique of social media. In discussing the instructors who have faced critique at Mizzou, the author writes,
Combined, their experiences reflect a harsh new reality for American professors: a combination of politics and technology has made it easier than ever for professors to become targets. In the age of Facebook and Twitter, trigger warnings and microaggressions, college professors can go from being educators to the accused in the blink of an eye.
Now, there’s enough in these two sentences for a dissertation (don’t even get me started on belittling trigger warnings and microaggressions or complaints about how smartphones are the demise of society as we know it). The author is positioning this as a negative thing, as did many of my students, but I would argue it’s positive.
Each time a “beloved” celebrity or athlete commits suicide or murders someone or makes a series of racist/transphobic/misogynist comments in an interview, we feel scandalized. How is that related? The author writes that “college professors can go from being educators to the accused in the blink of an eye,” but the problem here is not that they’re accused. The problem is that we position them as above being accused.
Professors are flawed humans—just like anyone else. And yet, we should hold them to a higher standard because they (intentionally or not) impart those values onto the students they educate.
It’s important to utilize the tools that we have to make visible inexcusable actions that have been invisible for so long. And there’s the balance. Against critiques of students being rude and belligerent, against the backdrop of (white) students arrested for making death threats against (black) students, there’s the show of solidarity. This past week, #BlackonCampus became an important hashtag on Twitter to share microaggressions and overt racism that students across campuses have experienced. Photos of students across the nation holding signs that read, “I stand in solidarity with Mizzou.” This Blavity article, “22 Campuses Who Protested and Spoke in Solidarity with Mizzou and Yale This Week #BlackonCampus,” says it best when describing the power of social media:
Our goal is to share the information relevant to our community, as they stand up and fight for what we have always deserved, but systemically been denied. Connect with each other. Build with each other.
Beirut & Paris: Hashtags, Safety Features, Underlying Values
Last night while lying on my couch with the dog (my typical Friday night routine), I checked Twitter. Usually my list is a mix of news articles and commentary about disability and mental health. But all I saw were posts about Paris. When I went to the search tool to see what was happening, I was hit with a slew of #prayfor hashtags: #PrayforJapan, #PrayforBaghdad, #PrayforBeirut, #PrayforParis. (It may be a little early to read analyses of these hashtags, but this large-scale study from the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing and corresponding #prayforBoston tag is a fascinating discussion of how we react emotionally to terrorist acts.) Twitter is interesting this way because it’s easy to quickly disseminate information and you get a pretty unbiased look at what’s happening around the world (vs. what’s happening in your friend group). Yet when I switched to Facebook, I saw lots of posts about Paris and nothing else. Indeed, Facebook was doing quite a few things to direct people’s attentions (rightfully so) the bombings in Paris last night.
Most notably, we saw the safety check—a feature that allowed Parisians to verify their safety. I received a notification that someone I went to college with had checked in as “safe.” For all the stupid features of different social media, this one is truly impressive. And yet, something about it bothered me. Why was this the first time I had heard of such a feature? With the bombings in Beirut the night before, why were we seeing and hearing about this for the first time with Paris? I woke up this morning still feeling uneasy and unsure about what was bothering me and started scrolling through Twitter—reading post after post about Paris and fewer and fewer references to anything else.
Attacks on civilians occur so frequently, but where’s the outrage?
It’s not that we shouldn’t be outraged about what happened in Paris, but particularly with the bombing in Beirut happening not even 24 hours beforehand (and both areas targeted by the same group), it raises a lot of questions about what stories we receive and whose tragedies we deem more worthy of our attention.
It boils down to whose lives matter.
I was desperate to find articles on this this morning and have found a couple (and will be on the hunt for more as days pass and people put together their thoughts). This New Matilda article “Paris Attacks Highlight Western Vulnerability and Our Selective Grief and Outrage” succinctly articulates both my enthusiasm and reserve about the safety check. In the article, Chris Graham summarizes the cries of outrage by world leaders, then writes:
Meanwhile, in a brown part of the world, as the attacks began in Paris, Lebanon was just emerging from a National Day of Mourning, after 43 people were killed and 200 more were injured during a series of coordinated suicide bombings in Beirut.
Graham notes that both attacks are believed to be in response to the same common factor: Hezbollah’s decision to send troops to northern Syria. And yet, there are no check-ins for Beirut, no tweets from Obama, no suggestions to turn your Facebook profile into to the Lebanese flag.
Certainly, it must take a lot of time to develop a safety check feature, and yet, according to the TIME Magazine article “This Facebook Feature Kept People Connected During the Paris Attacks” the safety feature was rolled out in 2014, and my hopes for Facebook were dashed.
The feature was inspired by the 2011 Japanese tsunami that killed 16,000 people. And apparently, it’s been used for natural disasters in Afghanistan and in Nepal. The case of Paris, however, is the first use of the safety check to mark a terrorist attack, which again is interesting considering the number of terrorist attacks that happen throughout the world. Although it seems like a technical acknowledgement at the end of the article, this last paragraph is worth considering:
How Facebook makes the decision that a situation is serious enough to activate Safety Check remains unclear.
What message are we communicating when we draw attention to particular tragedies and not others? What we circulate on social media—whether it’s through the hashtags we use or even just the particular articles that we share and retweet—inevitably communicates messages about what we value.
And when the stories we share are about human lives—whether they are about students’ protesting, lives in danger, or lives lost—we inevitably communicate message about whose lives matter.