Hashtags & Haters

Surviving the social media takeover

On the day when newly reported Covid-19 cases in New Jersey hit a grim all-time high last month, more than 50,000 people tuned in to Gov. Phil Murphy’s Facebook live briefing.

The chatter in the comments feed offered a glimpse of what New Jerseyans thought of a major expansion of the state’s vaccination program. Not surprisingly, they had a lot to say. More than 1,000 viewers chimed in during the hour-long event.

Some thanked the Governor for opening vaccinations to more residents. Others criticized the state’s Covid restrictions affecting businesses and schools, often in not-so-polite words. Conversations flying back and forth touched on non-Covid related issues too, including the presidential election and the Jan. 6 violence at the Capitol building. Those got pretty heated, with a few calling for calm. “Why are ppl so mean,” one remarked.

If you missed it live by the way, the stream is archived on the state’s Facebook site – comments and all. Pearl Gabel, digital director for the Governor’s Office, points out that official state social media channels are monitored, but not censured.

“There is a lot of vitriol and sometimes they come after us personally, by our names. They criticize how we do our jobs, how we look, everything and anything we do,” says Gabel. “We don’t block anybody or take down any comments but we will report them if they seem dangerous.”

Murphy’s social media audience has climbed since he started posting live Covid updates. More than a half million people now follow him on Facebook and just shy of 1 million get his Tweets. The state itself is best known for its Twitter account, which has 360,000 followers. In case you didn’t know, New Jersey is also on TikTok. The feed is mostly filled with fun social distancing messages.

As Gabel sees it, you take the good with the bad when it comes to social media. The good is really good. People are paying attention to critical information that could help them stay safe during the pandemic. They’re also engaging with the state’s lighter, sassier side, such as a recent announcement of National Bagel Day, which garnered more than 5,000 likes on Instagram within hours of its posting, and ongoing debates over whether Central Jersey really exists.

But the bad can be really bad. As we spend increasing amounts of our time online, the many ways social media enriches our lives and drags us down have come into sharper focus, with many saying that change is long overdue.

“People used to read the newspaper when they woke up, but they didn’t necessarily carry it around with them all day,” says Jim Brown, director of the Rutgers University-Camden Digital Studies Center. “With your smartphone, that’s exactly what you do. We consume it on a constant basis, and it can be overwhelming.”

Brown has a better understanding of the downside of social media than the average consumer. His recent study called Hateware lays out how software platforms enable bad behavior through abuse and online harassment.

“We looked into how design, policy and community management decisions by these social media companies have not only enabled bad behavior, but in some ways they encourage it,” says Brown.

“Platforms like Facebook, Gab and Parler give people, especially those in fringe groups, the ability to share ideas they might not normally say in public or to organize across large geographical areas,” he says. “We saw this in events like the 2017 Charlottesville rally and the recent attack on the Capitol where there was a fringe movement that garnered a swarm of people online and ended as an offline attack of a physical space.”

So many people look at news and say, ‘Well, that’s your opinion.’ When we can’t even agree that certain things are facts it becomes a problem for us moving forward.”

These platforms are built to keep you endlessly scrolling, so they show you more of what best fits your world view, says Brown. Until very recently, the algorithm controlling your feed hasn’t taken into account whether the material is fact-based or not.

The debate becomes, should they? That’s something lawmakers at the federal level are starting to grapple with. The First Amendment right to freedom of speech doesn’t apply to social media giants like Facebook and Twitter because they’re private companies, Brown points out. Instead, they’re governed by their own speech rules that users agree to when they make an account. But they have become “so large and influential that their policies have impact on speech,” he says.

This keeps lawmakers like State Senator Troy Singleton closely monitoring his official and personal social media accounts.

“So many people look at news and say, ‘Well, that’s your opinion,’” he says. “When we can’t even agree that certain things are facts it becomes a problem for us moving forward.”

Singleton says he spends countless hours online calling out misinformation that people post on his pages, and he often gets in the middle of heated debate over questionable statements.

“Some people say I’m wasting my time but I try to reason with people and present objective information we can all find to make a determination if something is true or not,” he says.

The results are decidedly mixed. Sometimes truth prevails, but not always, he says.

“When someone holds so steadfast to their beliefs, even if the beliefs are not based in fact and realism, it becomes difficult to move them off that track,” Singleton adds.

He points to the warning labels that platforms like Twitter and Facebook now place on posts containing disputed information as a good first step to dealing with the problem.

As a state policy maker, he says the case for stronger civics education has never been clearer

“Children need to grow up to have a deeper understanding of their place in the body politic, being able to discern for themselves if information they’re hearing is true and to not just regurgitate things they see, hear and read,“ he says. “That’s not to say we should force political ideology on anyone, that’s the last thing I want to see happen.”

Rutgers’ Brown says people can find a balance between the good and the bad by thinking more critically about how, why and when they spend time online.

“Like anything else, it should be consumed in moderation,” he says. “Especially now, there’s a lot of enjoyment in being able to interact during a time when we can’t always be face-to-face. Make it a part of your day rather than part of every moment of your day.”

Original Article