Have We Crossed a Line with Social Media?

I’m one of those semi-reluctant social media interactors who has to engage a bit for work but who mainly enjoys the cute cat and baby videos others post. And, yes, I’m also guilty of the humble brag. We all are, whether it’s a photo of your fabulous vacation or the apple pie you aced. Mine are mostly about political marches. (“Here I am at the Unite the Right 2 counter-protest in DC, and aren’t I great for being there and bringing my kids?” That kind of thing.)

As explored in the issue at hand, there’s a whole lot wrong with social media. From the proliferation of hate speech and the sanctioning of horrible impulses to the way social media can depress, delude, and tribalize, it seems worthwhile for humanists to start considering the ways social media harms us and the harm we may be doing to others by utilizing it. One point I found especially chilling was the idea Mark Dunbar raises in the cover story, which surveys six recent books on the dangers of social media—that businesses utilize these platforms not only to figure us out and sell us stuff, but also to replace us as contributors and producers of ideas, knowledge, and so on.

In a November 25 New York Times editorial, philosopher S. Matthew Liao (who directs the Center for Bioethics at New York University) wonders if, given the arguably unethical behavior by Facebook that’s recently come to light, folks have a moral duty to get off the platform. He affirms the social media giant’s “significant role in undermining democratic values around the world,” pointing to white supremacist and anti-Semitic propaganda, as well as messages spread on Facebook demonizing Myanmar’s Rohingya Muslims during a horrific genocidal campaign by the nation’s military. Incidentally, hate speech targeting the Rohingya also spread on Twitter during the 2017 crackdown, and just last month Twitter chief Jack Dorsey faced a storm of criticism when he described, in tweets, how he recently spent ten days in Myanmar doing silent meditation to celebrate his birthday—the tweets detailed his heart rate and musical selections while meditating, the wonderful food, and joyous people but failed to mention the Rohingya, over 700,000 of whom had to flee the country. Even the bosses don’t know the right way to use these platforms.

If you’re not the CEO of a social media platform, but rather someone who uses social media to communicate with friends and rarely, if ever, circulates political material, keep in mind that the more time you spend scrolling and sharing, the more it encourages others to stay on who may be more susceptible to propaganda. And if you do share and react to material that’s offensive, even if to criticize, you’re amplifying the original message. Considering these truths, the ethicist Liao wiggles around his question about a moral duty to leave Facebook and concludes that if the platform crosses a moral red line in the future (a line he neglects to draw), we’ll all have to bolt.

Giving Twitter some due, the platform recently updated its policy to ban users who target individuals with “repeated slurs, tropes, or other content that intends to dehumanize, degrade, or reinforce negative stereotypes about a protected category.” This includes “targeted misgendering or deadnaming of transgender individuals.” The second term refers to the practice of calling a transgender person by their former name, and while free speech proponents might think this rule goes too far, others argue it can change behaviors to ultimately improve communication. “Practitioners of deadnaming and misgendering claim that they’re acting not out of malice but out of honesty and, perhaps, even a twisted sort of love,” Media Matters editor Parker Molloy explains in a recent op-ed. This reminds me of something the executive vice president of the Family Research Council told a Washington Post reporter when asked what, if not hate, the FRC feels towards gay people. “Would it be possible to say ‘love’?” Jerry Boykin said. “I love you enough to tell you the truth.” Echoes of this sentiment are heard in William Bradford Nichols’ exposé on Patriot Prayer founder Joey Gibson herein. Truth does seem to be in short supply these days, but as Molloy sees it, “sometimes, voicing one’s personal ‘truth’ does just one thing: It shuts down conversation.”

The challenge for humanists, as Clay Farris Naff outlines in “Can Humanism Overcome Hate?” is not to bond so tightly to our like-minded friends that we exclude the people with whom communication can be most productive. So, not only should I not defriend my Trumploving cousin on Facebook, I should engage with her there about anything but Trump. Even better, I should call her up and ask things about her kids, what the schools are like where she lives, and if her nursing career is going well. (And this way, there’s no danger of her seeing a photo of me standing in front of the White House during the People’s Climate March flipping off the guy inside.)