Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, and Instagram have become ingrained into our daily lives. But does social media cause more harm than good?
When a group of men connected to Al Shabaab took control of a Nairobi mall over the weekend, killing at least 69 people along the way, they made a point of creating a Twitter hashtag to make the murders more visible. The group posted pictures of the gunmen walking through the mall, compared Kenyan troops to "rabbits caught in the headlights," and posted a litany of intimidatingly vague posts about the foreign passports held by prominent members of the Kenyan government.
Earlier this year, Twitter suspended Al Shabaab’s main account for posting death threats, a violation of Twitter's terms of service. Months later, the group sent out emails inviting reporters to follow newly created accounts. It was not enough to plan and execute a violent act in a civilian location; the group ensured this act would be used as the basis to violate the presumptive safety of social media of as many people as possible.
Because technologies like Twitter rest on a number of basic lifestyle privileges mostly taken for granted in the West—electricity, cellular reception, Internet access, a computer—the normative ideals transmitted through social media tend to be exclusionary, creating a bizarrely fragile world of rhetoric and etiquette that is perpetually vulnerable to shock at the discovery of real violence coming through it.
In a story for Wired this month, Ben Austen reports on the phenomenon of opposing Chicago gang members using Twitter and Facebook to extend rivalries and intensify conflict in front of an Internet-wide audience. The 2012 murder of Lil JoJo after a Twitter fight with Chief Keef about gang affiliation is the most famous example of an increasingly common phenomenon among teenagers: using social media as a way to legitimize their reputation and threat.
There may be something innately violent about the structure of social media, a platform that favors confrontation and dissension as much as it does peaceful community building.
The Chicago police department claims that 80 percent of all "school disturbances" have some connection to social media, the widened visibility of which can lead to huge blowups, such as the 2011 case of 81 high school students being suspended for fighting in the minutes after someone posted a photo of a murdered boy in Facebook. Last year, Tashay Edwards became an Internet celebrity after she was filmed beating up another teen whom she felt had behaved disrespectfully on Twitter.
These moments of violence are so powerful because they interrupt the hopes for progressive optimism many have for social media, and suggest that the most impactful uses may come from negative behavior. In a 2001 study in the Review of General Psychology, researchers reaffirmed the superstitious fear that destructive social encounters were significantly more powerful than positive ones. The researchers found that "bad information is processed more thoroughly than good. The self is more motivated to avoid bad self-definitions than to pursue good ones. Bad impressions and bad stereotypes are quicker to form and more resistant to disconfirmation than good ones."
These effects have helped shape the character and reach of social media, and it seems we have now reached a period where those who are most committed to using it for good are being used as unintentional conduits of negative projects. Indeed, there may be something innately violent about the structure of social media, a platform that favors confrontation and dissension as much as it does peaceful community building.
In the aftermath of the debates about the effect of social media on the Arab Spring protests, it seems that Twitter and Facebook might have been so helpful precisely because many people using them were ready to throw bricks and Molotov cocktails into police stations, flip cars over, storm government buildings, and attack the offices of corrosive political parties.
The most persuasive evidence that Twitter and Facebook can change people's behavior tends to be clearest when connected to negative or violent outcomes. This presents a kind of trap for people who want to believe digital media can be used to affect people's lives for the better. It may be that the stability of positive and peaceful communities is most dependent on cues that aren't digitally transmissible—posture, inflection, movement, deference, and interjections.
The more power with which we imbue digital forms of socializing, the more we make them available as tools for destructive purposes, intentionally or not. And in many cases, seeing these horrific incongruities—a Twitter account turned into a terrorist news ticker—the more shaken our faith should be in building these platforms up in the first place. Anything that can be used for good can be used twice as well for evil.
Michael Thomsen is Complex's tech columnist. He has written for Slate, The Atlantic, The New Inquiry, n+1, Billboard, and is author of Levitate the Primate: Handjobs, Internet Dating, and Other Issues for Men. He tweets often at @mike_thomsen.