Social media led to the rule of opinion over knowledge - and it leads to echo chambers where people share the same opinion
By Dr Gwen Bouvier, Department of Media Studies
Opinion: social media tends to oversimplify things which is not a good thing when it comes to complex, ambiguous, more impersonal issues
Actress Alyssa Milano’s tweet confessing to a friend (and everyone else) that she had been sexually harassed more times than she could count – using Tarana Burke’s #MeToo – resulted in more than 1.7 million tweets in over 85 countries. It came to dominate world news. It seems great, right? We all now have a voice and we can all bring shame to those who do not do right.
But there are a good few reasons why we should stop and think. When a hashtag that has an emotive subject is created, the outpouring of feelings on the thread means that the actual core issue may quickly disappear from the surface. Other people chime in with their own experiences (social media is personal after all), which may be of many different kinds of degrees. In the case of #MeToo, this has been a whole range of other injustices related to sexual abuse, inappropriate or mildly offensive behaviour, the evils of pornography or other issues about gender relations at work.
But can we deal with all these things at the same time? Both tweets pictured above are part of complex and contested issues. If a hashtag starts to publicly shame a particular person and the heat rises in the feed, it seems that person’s guilt becomes about a whole list of evil and not just the initial accusation. In such cases, do we not also lose track of what they actually did?
Social media tends to oversimplify things. By its very nature, it has to emotionally engage or people ignore it. This means that complex, ambiguous, more impersonal issues are out. Consider #WalterPalmer, the dentist who shot Cecil the lion and had half of Twitter calling for his head. Yet the long term and terrible extermination and neglect of animal diversity in Africa and the burning of the rainforests in Latin America does not get the same attention or rage. Social media likes a face to go after and something to which you can have an easy emotional response.
What is easy to attack is not what people do, but what one person says. A woman tweets about HIV in Africa and the mob will want blood. Of course, such a tweet could be taken negatively. When I first saw this, I thought she was having a dig at some fundamental problems and inequalities in our world. Comedians do this all the time. For the Twitter mob though, it is not acceptable. But what about the state of the world economic system and global banking that keeps some countries in Africa in poverty? OK, there may be some hashtags about this, but I bet they are not trending.
But don’t get me wrong. Twitter is fantastic, right? If the entire point was to advance awareness of sexual harassment and offer support, then surely the outpouring of solidarity and love hearts and the demonstration of a symbolic sisterhood on Twitter accomplished just that. However, given the diversity of things being said, what are tweeters actually agreeing with?
Encased within this feeling of agreement and being part of the solidarity, do we agree with anything and everything the tweets are saying? One way of describing this is clicktivism. It is easy to say "yes, I passionately agree!" and send a tweet with a love heart. It is somewhat more challenging to go out and fix things or take responsibility.
Social media is also highly promotional because people want attention and followers. A foundation might come out with a rivalling hashtag like #IWILLSPEAKUP, with men looking serious and focused to show they are with the women and are part of the solidarity. But with what does this foundation align exactly? And how is it that now we find so many of these people urging their heartfelt support but also posting a posed, stylised picture? It looks a lot like self-promotion.
Companies and organisations paw over trending hashtags with carrying moral campaigns to find things alongside which they can align, give their brand a boost. For example, a children’s toy maker produces a Cecil the lion toy with all money raised going to charity.
Or a minor novelist or columnist will come out with an extreme opinion to get higher up the chain. For example, in the case of the "who cares if a few innocent men go down?" tweet, we wonder if this person would care if one of these people were a member of her own family? Then again, I wonder if it was sincerely meant. It certainly hooks people emotionally, who then take up the issue.
It’s all about opinions and those that motivate and strike chords. Social media led to the rule of opinion over knowledge - and it leads to echo chambers where people share the same opinion. Yet such echo chambers run the risk of excluding complexity, ambiguity. The shouting amplifies in echo chambers as it bounces back off the walls at us. It all makes it harder to just listen.
This is social media in 2018. At the best of times, it's a seemingly open access arena where anyone can pitch in and we can truly connect and discuss important issues. At other times, it's a hot mess of different issues and opinions without people truly listening to each other and risking losing track of the very core issue which started it.