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Taking Shots From a Screen

Social media has become a hotbed of misinformation. It doesn’t have to be this way.

By Nat Rubio-Licht December 4, 2023

Mobile used as mouth speaking loudly on social media.

This article originally appeared in the November/December 2023 issue of Seattle magazine.

Porismata Borah spends an inordinate amount of time on social media. It’s not what you think. She’s not spouting opinions or criticizing conspiracy theorists. She’s just doing her job.

As a social media expert, Borah studies media psychology and how it influences behavior. Despite all the online misinformation and lack of civility, she takes a decidedly optimistic view.

“There’s a lot of literature that shows social media increases deliberation, increases political participation,” says Borah, the Lester M. Smith Distinguished Professor at Washington State University’s Murrow College of Communication. She is also editor in chief of the International Journal of Public Opinion Research, a quarterly social science journal. “If we want to, it’s possible to have conversations that are deeply meaningful.”

Seattle magazine talked with Borah and two other prominent Seattle social media experts on mounting problems with modern-day communication, how to bring nuance back, and what role the platforms themselves should play. 

Mike Caulfield is a media literacy expert and research scientist at the University of Washington Center for an Informed Public. He is credited with developing the SIFT method (Stop. Investigate the source. Find better coverage. Trace claims) for vetting online claims and is co-author of the book, Verified: How to Think Straight, Get Duped Less, and Make Better Decisions About What to Believe Online.

Joseph Barnes is an associate clinical professor of marketing at Seattle University. Barnes has expertise in social and digital media ethics and communications, and has consulted for Fortune 500 companies, nonprofits, and government agencies. He is the author of Social Media Ethics Made Easy: How to Comply With FTC Disclosure Requirements.

All believe social media can be a force for good and can create communities among geographically disparate users. Answers are edited for length and clarity.

How have social media influenced conversations about politics, identity, and activism?

Barnes: The positive side of social media is that it can amplify voices and stories for people, create awareness of issues, build relationships, and help those demanding change in social justice. But we need to learn how to have better online conversations. Social media is not for dishonesty, or hate content, or content designed purposely to get people riled up and angry. But we’ve got the public at large using this tool and not knowing how to use it in its best possible way.

Borah: It perhaps depends on which social media platform you look at. If you’re thinking about Reddit or even Facebook posts, you have all the space to write. YouTube videos you can make long. TikTok, though, has shorter videos, and Twitter has short limitations with characters. Those affordances might take away some of those nuances. Shorter posts and videos can take the history out of a topic, or take away some of the bigger complexity of conversations and make it into a simplistic thing where it loses all the nuances and meaning.

Caulfield: First things first, people feel like because of the speed of it, they immediately have to have an opinion on it. But then there’s this idea of conflict expansion. The way you build a coalition is you sort of broaden the focus of the conflict. This has turned out to be the way that people build audiences online as well. The people that are trying to make a living doing that online get very good at taking every issue and trying to find the shortest possible path to making it representative of a large ideological divide.

Does social media create echo chambers?

Borah: If we want to, it is possible for us to have conversations which are deeply meaningful and look at all the different sides, not just one versus the other. But at the same time, this conflict that we’re talking about where we see topics being made into one side versus the other is not just social media. Traditional media do that all the time. News media love to conflict one against the other, because that’s what interests people. Social media makes it easier for us to fall into those echo chambers. On social media, it becomes really easy to select what we want to do. We could read only the things we want to read and avoid the rest of it. We could become part of certain groups and talk to only like-minded people. Your own biases are there, and then you confirm those biases within those echo chambers.

Barnes: One of the risks is that too many people get their news from social media, and follow accounts or people that reinforce their own views. It takes us away from what we should be doing: listening, asking questions for clarity, asking others, “Help me understand why you feel that way.”

When people break away from being online, do social media have a real, tangible impact?

Caulfield: This is the whole game with claims of election fraud. There are absolutely problems in elections, and those problems very often come down to maybe a lack of preparation or training or funding. Say, for example, someone double scanned a bunch of ballots, and it was caught in an audit. In a local, productive context, the conversation would ask, “What was the process flaw that allowed this, and how do we make sure that it doesn’t happen again?” But then, what does that become? Immediately, it will be propelled to prominence by someone who wants to claim that the entire election was stolen. Our desire to make every argument an argument at scale is corrosive, and I absolutely think social media does that.

Borah: There’s a lot of literature that shows social media increases deliberation, increases political participation, because you see other people do things. Like people on Facebook or on Twitter saying, “I Voted.” And with activism, for instance, the Black Lives Matter protests in 2020, there was so much organization with the help of social media. You still need the work that happens on the ground when people get together. However, social media makes it easier for those things to happen.

Barnes: Social media can be so powerful, not only to better understand each other in positive ways, but to trigger signing petitions, volunteering, donations, asking questions. And I think we’ve seen impacts of both negative and positive. Two years ago, it was used by people who wanted to incite violence, to get people to a location to essentially rile them up. We don’t need social media to trigger a violent event.

How can social media be a force for good? 

Barnes: A lot of the general populace think that the government doesn’t listen, but that you can use social media for activism. If you think the government doesn’t care about a particular social justice issue, you can work on it. Get people to sign petitions, volunteer at events, show up and listen to a speaker. I think it’s also incumbent not just on people, but also on brands and businesses. It calls upon brands not just to do activism posts, but to publicly take stands.

Borah: It depends on the context. In countries where the news media are not free, social media (can be) used to send information from that country to outside where international journalists take that information from citizen journalists and use that for informing the world. For countries like the U.S., it can be useful for organizing and getting people information. There are so many different ways to think about it — for politics, for health, for reaching younger people. Oftentimes it is your first line of exposure to information, and if it’s not the correct information, then it’s a big problem. 

Caulfield: One of the things that has not always been done well with traditional press is connecting individual stories to some of these larger issues, though it depends on what the issue is. One of the things that social media has allowed people to do is to connect the dots for people, to show how various things that are happening are a result of larger trends, larger drivers, larger causes, in a way that sometimes the news media has dropped the ball on. A similar story can be told with police violence against Black people: These can be seen as scattered events, or they can also be seen as part of a larger trend.

Harry Haysom / IKON Images

Should the platforms used for social media do a better job of policing?

Borah: Social media is used for promoting information. But the problem starts when misinformation is spread. That’s where the platforms have a really big responsibility, because this information can of course be spread really fast, and it can go to anybody. It’s easier said than done, but I think that Big Tech should try to make sure that information on platforms is not false, not dangerous, not hate speech, and not violent. I see so much in my research the kind of rhetoric that is used against certain marginalized populations. And to give a platform for that kind of rhetoric, that’s a big problem.

Caulfield: There have to be ways for platforms to offer context as a service. But one of the things that has happened is that platforms often see themselves as a service for publishers, not as a service for readers. The platforms are responsible, in part, for the impressions that a person forms on their platform. They have to think not just about whether something is true or false, but why it’s spreading, and what people are coming away from it with. The platforms have improved quite a bit from 2016 to 2021, but I think they’re backsliding now. 

Barnes: If there’s complete misinformation, if it’s designed to promote hate, if it’s designed to incite violence, then yes, platforms are responsible. But the problem is there’s millions of posts happening every second. How do you monitor that between real people and algorithms? Even if we do have legislation about this, it’s almost impossible to police.

What would it take for people to break out of the tunnel vision that social media can cause?

Caulfield: We just need more context on things. It’s very often just this small piece of context that will break us out, and make us realize, “This isn’t what I thought it was.” That itself has become such a contentious area because people talk about it as if you’re labeling something as bad. From the point of view of an audience, people should want more context. But we’ve gotten into this weird concept that putting extra context on things on the web is seen as some sort of abridgement of free speech. 

Borah: Be curious about the other side. If you are only listening to the one side that you agree with, there is no way you will know what the other side is talking about. Get your information from multiple sources. If you’re getting all your information on social media, make your sources diverse. If you’re following only one particular news organization, don’t do that. Follow multiple others. The other way is very personal, but diversify your friends. I mean, you can’t be hanging out with only the type of people that are exactly like you. That’s the best way to get out of those echo chambers.

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