Governing in the Twitter era
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Virtual social networks are not necessarily safe or generous spaces; rather, they can easily — and rapidly — descend into chaotic and profoundly dysfunctional spaces in which only the loudest and most abusive voices remain.
Social media have become a key component of electoral politics. Political campaigns rely heavily on virtual networks to advance their messages. Governments, too, increasingly rely on online forums, not only to advance their messages but also to invite community engagement. Indeed, social media are ubiquitous to contemporary communications.
And yet, it is clear from a number of cases reported by Newfoundland and Labrador news media over the past few years — the shutting down of Progressive Conservative Premier Kathy Dunderdale’s Twitter account after it was discovered she was following an X-rated porn site (2013), the reprimanding of NDP MHA Gerry Rogers (2013) in relation to comments made by others on a Facebook group of which she was a member, the removal of a volunteer provincial advisory board member after penis-related political commentary on a Facebook post (2010), the online bullying experienced by Liberal Finance Minister Cathy Bennett (2016) — that the architecture of virtual social networks and their role in relation to governance are poorly understood and cross party lines.
It is evident that individuals and groups have been able to harness the power of social media in productive ways, drawing on the possibility and potential of “going viral” to bring socially and politically relevant issues to the fore, to open a space for debate, and to spread ideas across a wide geographic reach. In this regard, these media perform a vital communications function, making visible and amplifying the needs and concerns of communities who might otherwise not have direct access to the halls of power.
In addition to this, as Tara L. Conley — a senior research associate at Race Forward, the Center for Racial Justice Innovation — has observed, hashtags are themselves “political actors” that can enable marginalized groups to write “counterstories”; that is, a hashtag can allow for the possibility of telling stories from new perspectives. So, too, can hashtags promote affective engagement with social issues, in this way encouraging citizen engagement at the level of emotions. Furthermore, the immediacy of virtual social networks has made possible highly responsive social justice organizing that moves fluidly between virtual and real worlds.
And yet, as ubiquitous as virtual networks are to contemporary communications, and as liberating as their political potential might be, it is clear that they are not always politically productive spaces; indeed, social media can be unsafe, hostile, threatening environments that undermine citizen engagement rather than supporting it. Thus, while the immediacy of the virtual network can enable rapid, coordinated responses to issues of social and political concern, it can also serve as a space for heated and abusive responses; an ever-growing body of research points to the pervasiveness of cyberbullying and, further, to the ways in which certain communities (among them racialized, LGBTQ+, and women) are particularly targeted in this way.
The CBC’S recent decision to close comment boards on articles dealing with Indigenous issues offers just one indication of the limitations of social media as a venue for civil discourse. Virtual social networks are not necessarily safe or generous spaces; rather, they can easily — and rapidly — descend into chaotic and profoundly dysfunctional spaces in which only the loudest and most abusive voices remain. In such environments, engaging in virtual debates becomes an endeavour fraught with risk.
It is worth recalling, in this regard, internationally recognized feminist writer, columnist, and blogger Jessica Valenti’s decision to leave social media for an extended period of time after rape and death threats were directed against her young daughter.
More locally, the continuing discussion about the Donald Dunphy case raises questions about free speech, surveillance and safety.
How, then, might a responsive government, committed to community engagement, act? How might governments productively engage with social media? How might they effectively harness virtual social networks not for brand management, but rather as tools for community and citizen engagement? How might they do this while also recognizing the inherent limitations of this venue for political participation?
And finally, how can governments contribute to developing not only a positive and thoughtful social media presence but also an emancipatory one that allows for the active participation of all members of society?
At issue here is a politics of stepping up and stepping back. That is, for social media to succeed as forces for social good, rather than forces of evil, they need to be (re)imagined as open, generous and generative spaces where listening, rather than speaking, is the foundational value.
While the government’s communications branch, Executive Council, has released a document entitled “Social Media Policy and Guidelines,” this document is concerned only with marketing and brand management; it is not a tool for critical social media awareness. But such awareness is integral to effective and ethical online engagement. Critical social media training can educate political leaders, parties and governments about the architecture of virtual social networks and the assumptions embedded into their design. So, too, can it elucidate the politics of social media participation — bringing to the fore the idea of the hashtag as a political actor, for example, while also working through the documented limitations of social networks as venues for participatory politics.
Through this process, which could be facilitated through the communications branch, political leaders, parties and governments can learn to model alternative forms of social media engagement that are attentive not to “shouting the loudest” — which has become a default response — but rather, to taking time, making space and listening actively. A politics of stepping up and stepping back requires governments to take active responsibility for the virtual spaces they create, and further, to ensure that those spaces — through their active commitment to listening — are truly respectful and responsive.
About the Author
Sonja Boon (Gender Studies, Memorial University of Newfoundland) has research interests in the body and embodiment, feminist theory, life writing and autoethnography. She has also published and taught on the topic of social media, including a 2015 article on online lactivism and breast- feeding selfies, which appeared in the International Journal of Communication. Her most recent book, on life writing, citizenship, and the body, was published in 2015.