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Social Media as a Social Good

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Benjamin Deitchman
July 27, 2018

Post on Facebook, “The Facebook is excellent.” Tweet, “Twitter is great.” Caption an Instagram photograph, “I love Instagram.” See how few likes, favorites or otherwise positive reactions appear compared to negative comments and unhappy emojis. Out of context, proposing the idea that social media is beneficial to the social fabric of our community and governance structures has become what the social media commentariat may consider a “hot take” or “trolling” designed to elicit controversy. Less than two decades into the rise of this communications medium there is reason for concern from the public policy sphere, but we can also be optimistic about social networking in rebuilding and realigning our social capital to meet complex twenty-first century challenges.

For all its benefits, any serious consideration of social media in our public discourse must call out the woefully inadequate response of companies, legislators and regulators to the attacks on our democratic institutions for which these website and mobile telephone applications were a key conduit for malevolent actors. The negligence and ignorance of this threat was unfortunate, but it is inexcusable that public and private decisionmakers are not confronting the ongoing and purposeful lies, deceit and malicious “fake news” that have infected the contemporary online culture.

Mark Zuckerberg and his Silicon Valley compatriots have built several of the most influential businesses in human history, but are not yet prepared to protect truth, justice, fairness, safety, security and equity on their platforms. Congress and the executive branch do not yet show the comprehension, fortitude or will to formulate a solution to these problems. Corporate social responsibility best practices and public policy options to address these issues, from voluntarily indicating unreliable sources to forcefully regulating social media as a public utility, are circulating on these very digital commons. Patience may be wearing thin with the continuous news cycles that proliferate in these ever more connected domains, but these technologies are still new enough that we can, perhaps, expect debugging of their worst abuses going forward.

It may be thoroughly naïve to argue that we have already seen the worst of social media, but we also hopefully still have yet to use it to best serve the social good. At its core, social media is an opportunity to form, connect and grow communities, building social capital that can strengthen the public sphere and democratic governance. Whether it is connecting with neighbors at a similar place in their lives or interesting individuals on the other side of the planet with the same obscure hobby, the digital can bridge divides and unite us through means unimaginable to previous generations. Understandably there are growing pains as we all adopt and adapt to this immersive technology, particularly distractedness and isolation, but whether it is finding a soulmate, job or resource, the world is more open than ever.

There is no longer and excuse for an ill-informed citizenry. Concerns about a social media echo chamber are well-founded. As we become more familiar and educated in this still novel communications medium, we can hope for a broader and more encompassing dialogue amongst individuals and organizations with competing viewpoints. Of course, connecting with the likeminded has benefits. Whether it is allowing for a quick diffusion of research or simply reinforcing an unpopular but ultimately legitimate point-of-view, sharing with friends, family and colleagues worthwhile notes and articles is informative. Perhaps you are only reading this publication of a professional society of which you may not be a member due to the reach of social media and are either learning something or strengthening your conviction against this point of view.

We have greater insight into one another’s thoughts through the posts. This means we see some of the ugliest beliefs that infect our society and bullying behavior. It also, however, affords those of us who work on behalf of the public interest unscientific but instant and honest feedback on social and governmental endeavors. For leaders it allows a constant stream of opinions to reach and shape the perspective of administrative staff and the broader citizenry. While the media and other critical parties need to improve in the methods of fact-checking and contextualizing the content of the postings, direct communication between policy-makers and the key stakeholders can yield a useful and constructive conversation if conducted in a good faith effort.

The future is on social media. It is a bell, or a smartphone audio notification, we cannot un-ring. The critiques of this medium, both in terms of public policy and personal impacts, are fair and need ongoing action to ameliorate these concerns. The fears of the corporate and political exploitation of these tools are not unfounded, but rather than just reflexively attacking social media, we can find hope its full value. As public policy and public administrative professionals and other engaged stakeholders, we owe it to our professions, our communities, ourselves and our future to understand and improve social media to avoid the social bad and unlock the social good.

Autthor: Benjamin H. Deitchman is a policy practitioner in Atlanta, Georgia. His recently published book is Climate and Clean Energy Policy: State Institutions and Economic Implications. Dr. Deitchman’s email is [email protected] and he’s on Twitter @Deitchman.

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