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?