A work colleague in a Latin American country sent an email, asking for help. A manufacturing plant had been proposed, and while most people wanted it, a small number of radical environmentalists did not. There had been protests, road blockades, and rallies. And then, when it appeared that both the company and the authorities were going ahead, the ante was raised.
Using anonymous Twitter accounts, the protestors targeted the company’s spokesman. Scores of people were tweeting. A bounty was placed on the spokesman head — $5000 US was being offered for the spokesman dead or alive. And the tweets included his home address. Stripes were published in the local media.
I was asked to contact Twitter, which I did immediately. Then, as now, Twitter and the other social media giants were difficult to reach. They were, and are, all about communication, except when you needed to communicate with them. The company spokesman and his family went into hiding. Twitter responded two days after being contacted. The tweets, Twitter said, did not violate their community standards and would remain.
Think about that for a moment. A US-based company was allowing its platform to be used to threaten and possibly accomplish violence against an individual.
I should mention this happened in 2014. This continued to be Twitter’s policy until about a year later, when its founder and CEO, Jack Dorsey, received a death threat. On Twitter. Overnight, death threats were deemed violations of community standards. It’s amazing how that works.
In a very short period of time, roughly five or six years, social media had gone from the “great democratic experiment to give power to everyone” to something darker, more threatening, and more dangerous. The first few years had been something almost euphoric; very few people today would say anything about social media is euphoric. We’ve seen its ugly side, and we’ve seen it over and over again. Today it’s called cancel culture.
But it’s more insidious that people ganging up on someone online. What is worrisome is that it’s becoming embedded as policy with the social media giants. The concern, usually expressed by conservatives, is that a progressive / leftist mentality guides the social media platforms when they determine what’s true, what’s false, what is “missing context,” and what’s “fake news.” The Wall Street Journal took a look and determined that left-wing factcheckers were controlling the discussion on the COVID-19 pandemic. A lawsuit by conservative journalist against Facebook brought forth a really curious statement in Facebook’s court filings – that its factchecking was nothing more than opinion. I wouldn’t call that the best defense.
In general, Big Media is comfortable with the factchecking done by the social media platforms. That’s no surprise if Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and others are aligned with your own narrative and view of the world.
Consider what happened with the Covington Kids in January 2019. The power of big media and social media converged to destroy a bunch of teenaged boys whom they believed epitomized the prevailing media narrative. As The Atlantic pointed out, the media botched the story, and the damage to their credibility has been lasting. Not to mention costly. On that Friday and Saturday, I sat horrified while I watched online friends on Facebook and Twitter hysterically embrace the role of lynch mob.
Social media are powerful and influential. According to Pew Research, more than half of the people on Twitter get their news from that platform. For Facebook, the number has been declining to slightly less than a third. My own experience has been to stop considering Twitter as a source for hard or political news and discount most of what I see labeled as news on Facebook. I follow virtually no news accounts on Instagram or MeWe.
We have to learn how to assert, or reassert, some control over what is called news.