Gov­ern­ing in the Twit­ter era

The Telegram (St. John’s) - - FRONT PAGE - BY SONJA BOON

Read the lat­est in­stal­ment from ‘The Democ­racy Cook­book.’

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.

Sonja Boon

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