Sunday, January 16, 2011

Session 1: Social Media, Violence, and Control

At first glance, the role of social media in the tragic attack on Rep. Gifford seems pretty clear. After all many of us, including myself, first learned of the shooting through Facebook, Twitter, or other parts of the social media universe, which highlights its importance as not only a tool of communication, but as a major part of people’s lives. Yet taking a closer look reveals a more fragmented picture of social media as a force than can be both valuable and beneficial as well as controversial and even harmful, and everything on the spectrum in between, depending on how we use and view it.

One aspect of the impact of social media in this case stood out to me was the link of social media and violence. Making this connection was hard to escape… in my first encounter with the shooting, a Livejournal post, the friend who broke the news also right away pointed out a connection that had been quickly raised by many other voices: the possible role of Sarah Palin and her outspoken violent imagery may have played in the attack. Retrospectively, it’s easy to see Palin’s “target list”, which included the graphics of the crosshairs of a gun directed at certain democrats, and her aggressive rhetoric such as “Don’t retreat! Instead - RELOAD!” as a dangerous influence, especially on those with an already unstable mindset. This connection between violent speech and violent action was highlighted not only in the response of large section of social media, but carried over to traditional news media as well, although mostly in the shape of commentaries rather than actual news reports.

With these connections in mind, reading Julian Dibbel’s thoughts on violence in cyberspace, and how the experiences, rules, and consequences in a virtual community relate to those in the real world, was especially interesting. Everyone who has been part of an online community has probably experienced online violence of some degree, even if in less virulent shapes such as nasty anonymous comments, trolling, or flame-wars, and few would disagree with Dibble’s conclusion that virtual violence, while not equivalent to its real life counterpart in impact and consequences, does reach beyond online boundaries. The Gifford shooting takes this idea one step further, suggesting that people’s online behavior can have powerful and violent consequences in the real world.

Although the recent attack is not the first this is not the first case to highlight the role of social media as a potential tool in the relaying of actual violence, the idea that words and actions expressed online can cause harm in “real life” has maybe never so easily been stamped as the truth than when they lead to a tragic and shocking result such as this shooting. But is it really that simple? While I personally in no way agree with Palin’s sentiments, nor with the way she expressed them, I also believe that we should be cautious in assigning blame for a crime on the grounds of broad rhetorical statements.

Directly linking expression to violence in this way can easily be used as support for the idea that the open and unfiltered nature of social media is a negative, even dangerous state, implying that users cannot be trusted to tell the difference between the truth and false advertising, or a metaphor and a call to go out and shoot a person. This is the argument Carol Tenopir presents in her article, in which she warns of a “dangerous dumbing-down of culture” caused be the uncontrolled and anonymous state of social networking, and the unreliability and bias of non-expert news sources (despite those called “expert” news sources having proven themselves more than once to be neither infallible nor unbiased, including during the course of the Gifford shooting when one major new agency mistakenly reported the Congresswoman to have died from her injuries).

And while neither Tenopir nor Andrew Keen, whose ideas she outlines in her article, propose any kind of control mechanisms in order to deal with the threat of “sites where ‘ignorance meets egoism meets bad taste meets mob rule’”, it is easy to see how some would make the leap from criticism to control to censorship, especially when violence is concerned, similar to the way that such attempts have been made for example in regards to music (lyrics), video games etc. This is not at all to say that anyone in favor of responsible expression in social media is implicitly favoring censorship, but I do believe it’s important to keep this possible connection in mind, since it’s easy to overlook especially when the speech in question is something many of us may personally disagree with.

Exploring the class readings and responses to the Gifford case has definitely given me some new perspectives on the possibilities and problems of social computing. I have been a participant in this world for years, yet never consciously thought about the unwritten rules or consequences involved. The idea that the openness of blogging, journaling and social networking could have actual negative impacts in real life first occurred to me when a former advisor told me about the case of a fellow professor who actually lost her job after a dispute with students over an online rating site for academics, which turned into a real life conflict.

And this seems to be what characterizes social computing of today. It involves more than virtual interaction and community on interactive platforms, instead it has become so much a part of our everyday lives that it has to includes real world connections and rules as well. This is a definite evolution from the far less interactive environment presented by Nadir and Herring, where people simply expressed their own ideas without much feedback or obvious connection. But who can image Facebook without commenting? And how different would the Gifford case have been presented in the media without the enormous number of Twitter responses, blogs, and comments to news stories?



  1. Hi Julia,
    I agree with your point about our life today is attached with social media. Social media influence people and make them enable to have double or even multiple identity. People have their real life personality, and moreover by having account in social media, they have their online personality. This personality can be the same, but usually, online identity is created different from the real world/life identity.

    Other new possibilities mediates by the social media. You can go online as a dragon or a snack. You may have different race or gender when you represent your self using an avatar that go to MUVE system. However, attack, tragedy, disaster, crime, and accident will be remain as something that will attract human attention, either in real world or in the digital world.

  2. I agree with you that social media has become part of many people’s life. We get news online and share our viewpoints online. Given the important role that social media play, it is dangerous if someone wants to influence others’ minds through it in a negative way. Censorship is a possible solution to the problem. Since we have censorship in TV shows and movies, it is practicable to implement censorship in the virtual world. So, the next step is what the criteria of the virtual-world censorship are and who will implement it. In addition, I am curious about flaming. Why do people start the flame wars? Will they also do it in the real world? If people do it in both the real world and cyber world, it seems that the two worlds make no difference to them. However, if they do not do it in both worlds, it is interesting to know how they look at the two worlds. I think the investigation can help us set the rules of using the cyber space.

  3. Hi Julia, I strongly agree with your point that says social computing is "more than virtual interaction and community on interactive platforms", but extension of, and part of our daily life. So, like communication is important in our daily life, communicating is important in the virtual environment as well, which is what you refer as activities like feedback or comment. But due to the feature of online activities, communications online might seem "ugly" sometimes, and I like the idea Bug mention above, since censorship works in the real world, it should be implemented into the virtual environment too.

  4. Online activity reminds me of drivers with road rage. Since there is a separation of physical space and no real chance of a face-to-face conflict, some drivers will curse out loud/throw their hands up/suck their teeth at their fellow commuters. Would they behave in such a manner if they were on foot? It is easier to express anger anonymously and/or from a safe distance. How many times have you scrolled through a comments section and read through some foul statements often riddled with misspellings? I am guessing a lot. In these instances, personal accountability is removed. Anonymous commentators feel courageous and safe enough to vent or instigate or undermine another's point of view because of the delayed reaction.

    Nardi et al examined this somewhat liberating aspect of social media because “bloggers were free of conversational partners’ reactions to what they said…they did not have to deal with interruptions” and that blogging was akin to “‘monologues’ in which ‘other voices don’t intrude’”(228).

    Essentially, blog posts allow a transfer of energy that either gets picked up on (for example, in Linton Weeks' article about the mother who tweeted she wanted to smother her child) or unnoticed (according Violet Blue’s article about social media and the Arizona shooting Loughner was one of two approved subscribers of Gifford's YouTube channel). I think the latter is more common unless you are Sarah Palin or you just committed a violent crime.

  5. What a great post! I agree that it would be difficult, if not impossible, to link the violent act of Loughner with the violent rhetoric of those on the right. Yet at the same time this event has caused us to re-examine our online rhetoric. I wonder how long we all will be willing to listen to each others commentary before we grow weary of all the opinions and ultimately turn off the social media for good. I wonder if social media will peak with the 2012 election because of over-saturation of opinions and a disconnection from reality?

    As far as censoring social media, as Bug suggested, the only way that would work is for self-censorship, much like how the motion picture industry works. Movies are censored by themselves so that the government wouldn't get involved. This would result in more control but still a slippery slope. Also TV is really only censored by those that advertise on the shows. The threat of advertisers pulling their funding results in a sort of self-censorship as well. If Facebook policed their website and deleted content they did not want posted, even if it is just really bad stuff they were taking off, very few people would use the service. A better option would be for us to tell people when they are being offensive, bigots or racists.

  6. All of your ideas in this post effortlessly funneled into a clear definition of social computing at the end, which was the point of this exercise, and you did a excellent job! Reading Dibbel's article made me think of the first time I gave a speech in Second Life. When it was my turn to speak, I had to walk my avatar down a set of stairs in an arena, and my real-life self actually felt nervous while walking down, which was wierd. I expect to feel nervous giving a presentation in real life... but in a virtual world?! Somehow that happened!

    I agree with Palabra too, that being separated from others as in driving (behind metal, glass, or a computer monitor) can depersonalize the experience of connecting with others, making it easier for people to be hugely disrespectful of fellow users.

  7. Excellent post and comments! To me this seems to echo some of the same debates about violent movies and video games--do they allow people to 'blow off steam' in harmless arenas thus diminishing real world violence, or do they encourage violent behavior? We now live in a world where the number of hits, friends or followers you have creates some diffuse sense of authority and importance, just as record sales and TV ratings have provided an imperfect but accepted measure of what's worth watching and listening to. As a society we appear to need some consensus on what's okay in real life, what's okay online, and if the two are different, why?

  8. Thanks for the great comments everyone, you really gave me a lot more to think about!

    @ Bug: I'm generally wary of censorship, and just as Philip mentioned, it would probably be hard for anyone to control or censor social media. But it's true that as virtual communities evolve and become even greater parts of our lives, there should be rules to follow to discourage people from hurting others or themselves by their online behavior.
    As for flame wars or bad online behavior in general, I personally believe that most people who act in such ways would not usually do so in real life, so I agree, investigating this difference might be really helpful.

    @ Palabra: I love your road rage comparison! The distance and anonymity in both cases definitely seems to make a difference in people's behavior... and online things often get even worse, because it's so easy to completely hide behind a fake personality (at least until someone traces your IP address and possibly some private information and ends up posting it for everyone to see... online communities can be so crazy sometimes)

    @ Philip: The idea that the social media craze may reach some high point and then die down is really interesting! Of course there are lots of people out there who have been blogging for years, but the way social networking has reached almost everyone is really a more recent phenomenon. How many people have been getting Facebook and Twitter accounts "just because everyone has one"? (that's how it worked for me, despite having used Livejournal for 6+ years already) It would definitely be interesting to see that happen, what new craze might replace it, and how more "traditional" online communities might be affected by it.
    And I completely agree with all your points about censorship!

    @ Prof. Gazan: Those kind of debates were what came to my mind first when I saw how Palin's comments were connected to the shooting, and I couldn't help being just as bothered by it. Because I believe that in the end, we (or our parents in case we're underage) are the only ones responsible for our actions, and blaming video games or TV or something someone else has said it's just shifting the blame. That doesn't excuse people, especially those whose opinions carry some weight for large groups of people, from being responsible in how they express themselves. After all calling "Fire!" in a crowded theater is not considered freedom of speech, and to openly incite anyone to hurt another person should not be either.
    And that consensus what's ok, especially online, is definitely something we need. Many smaller online communities have their own, often unofficial, rules, and members enforce them simply by correcting, excluding or ignoring those who don't follow them. But places like Facebook or Twitter have become so much part of real life society, it seems to me that a different approach is needed. I'm not sure how we can reach such a consensus, but the way social media has become a part of our lives I think it should be governed by many of the same rules that apply in real life, especially when it comes to being responsible about our own actions and expressions.

  9. Julia - interesting post. I also emphasized the link between social media and violence and used the Sarah Palin/ crosshair map example. You then bring up another "real life" example from your professor about a professor "rating site" that caused problems between the professor and the students which I found interesting. These two examples really drive home this notion you brought up, why are some things okay online and not in real life? Immediately what comes to mind is "accountability." So maybe then the question becomes, how can we make online users more accountable for their actions?
    In one of my classes from last semester -- intellectual freedom -- a student gave a talk on social media and the law and we learned that it is a very fuzzy area. It is very hard to prosecute online hate crimes and slander/ lies posted online due to the nebulous environment in general and difficulty in determining and proving who is accountable.