Having now seen the troubles with Facebook (and by extension all companies under Meta), and getting involved in Twitter, I’ve seen a few things that disturb me. While my political views would hardly be called popular, I have taken pretty strong stances in support of Ukraine and women’s rights, as examples. This, of course, means you end up dealing with people of like minds because that’s how the social networks work.
However, we humans tend to confuse people going in the same direction as those who are going to the same destination, and in that regard, there is trouble. I’ll deal with the issue of social media interactions and Ukraine here because after the horrid video of the torture and castration of a Ukrainian Defender made the rounds, followed by an execution – I saw the video, it was absolutely horrible – things are even more tense.
The blowing up of a Ukrainian PoW camp even as Russia tries to say it was Ukrainians who did it… well, the Geneva Convention has rules about how far from the front PoW camps are supposed to be, and Russia of course ignored that, and evidence is that Russia did it. The United Nations and International Red Cross were useless. Broken. It’s hard for anyone observing to not be upset at some level, but apologists remain.
Now, these social networks have their own little echo chambers, and there’s plenty of disinformation to go round.
Given the failures of the United Nations and International Red Cross, and given that Ukraine likely doesn’t have the time or resources to create a registry of NGOs that are actually helping, it’s a matter of finding out from the ground in very quiet ways. I have done so, and I’m very select in what I share in that regard.
While all of that is happening, we of course have the Russian propaganda and misinformation happening, and people are calling that out. Some of it is patently obvious, like the same serial number on a missile used twice in Russian propaganda. There are plentiful examples of that sort of thing, even using pictures of the United States in Russian propaganda. Meanwhile, a genocide is happening in Ukraine, and the world is worried about inflation.
The price of living up to ideals is discomfort. And if our ideals are not worth the discomfort, there’s not much space for ideals in the future. During World War II, my fathers’ side of the family was getting rations in Trinidad, while my mother’s side was busy in the military or Merchant Marines. We call it sacrifice, whose root is, ‘to make holy’, but it is the cost of our ideals and how we wish the world to be.
In all of this, the social media interactions I’ve observed have had me thinking I should write this.
Becoming What We Hate.
There’s some things I see that I generally stay away from. I’ve seen people who support Ukraine go through multiple accounts on Twitter, referring to ‘Russian cum guzzlers’ and other creative profanity, to just this morning watching a group call out someone on something they didn’t agree with, calling in their group, and bringing up the fact that this person had been accused of causing a suicide through orchestration of social media posts… not unlike what that group was doing to the person themselves.
Wait, what? Yes. Don’t become what you hate.
Then there’s the falsehood of whataboutism. Some trolls will bring up something like what has happened in Iraq, or Syria, trying to create a parallel and at the same time reinforcing a division. Rather than engage it and say, “Yeah, that is/was wrong too”, which would allow the casual observer who might think that there really is a bias rethink their perspective. Instead, dismissing it reinforces to the readers that that particular issue is not considered real, when it very well may be, reinforcing their beliefs which works against the actual advocacy someone is trying to do.
I’ve done this quite a bit, saying, “Yes, that is bad too.” It generally is, and when someone reads that, it at best doesn’t reinforce a bias that the reader may feel when they started reading. At worst, there’s no comeback to it. All it takes is considering beyond the current person and to the greater audience who may not be interacting but is reading.
Whataboutisms are landmines of unintended consequences that, handled improperly, can cause people you don’t even know about to harden their resolve against your cause. What’s worse is when there is even a small amount of legitimacy in them, because unanswered, they fester. You might enjoy that smug feeling, but if your intent was to change minds, you likely failed.
And if you are advocating, for whatever reason, and you don’t want to change minds, you’re not advocating.
The Pile On For Mistakes.
People pile on to others during disagreements at times when they’re assuming intentionality, or not even worried about the intentionality and only the impact. Someone said it well enough to quote, so here it is:
People make mistakes. I made a mistake early on in writing, “The Ukraine” rather than Ukraine, and someone understood my intentions were good and corrected me. I thanked them for the correction and never made the mistake again. I was fortunate in that regard, because there are people out there being pretty groupthinkish about what people should say at this point. However, we have to understand on a social network that people aren’t fed the same news we are, their lives are different, their world, as they see it, is different. This doesn’t mean that given facts they won’t change their minds, which is sometimes the case. But it gets nasty, and it can border on bullying.
We get to decide who we are on social media. We get to decide what we participate in or not. If it’s a Russian embassy putting out crap, I’m all for letting the pile ons happen – after all, someone is getting paid to post things that need to be called out. But if it’s someone who made a mistake, and we assume intentionality, we can actually ruin someone’s life.
This happened recently to someone I had interacted with in more than one Twitter space. I don’t know what happened, no one talked about it, but suddenly they just deleted their account after saying goodbye because they – who had supported Ukraine without question – was accused of spreading Russian propaganda. Another person I know who is well read on Russia and it’s history and who has helped me map out commonalities with European colonialism got accused of spreading Russian propaganda because they omitted something in something they wrote by someone in one of the popular groups on Twitter supporting Ukraine. I did something I don’t do often. I stepped in and was surprised I didn’t get a pile on out of it.
Today, something similar happened to myself, but it was sidestepped by a neutral party that I respect and it came to a halt. This group think policy is something that people should be considering when they become members of a group: What’s the destination? It’s not just about direction.
It’s not just about impact. Intentionality plays a part.
Groups Get People Looking for Fights.
As groups get larger, people join who just want to fight. The goal of advocacy is to win, not to fight. Fighting is necessary sometimes. Worse, you sometimes get people these days who pretend to be advocating for one thing when they’re really advocating for another, and without structure, these groups have no mechanism to deal with it.
Wrapping This Up
I could wax poetic about how to handle situations on social media and social networks because I have been involved in moderation since the 1990s in various ways, and I have been wrong, and I have been right. Being wrong and correcting my mistakes has allowed me to be right more and wrong less.
I’m imperfect. I get things wrong. I correct them when I find them.
The more technical side of this, which is imperative, can be found here: Why Social Media Moderation Fails. It deals with the black boxes of how social media platforms respond to things differently, and can appear to have biases that we ourselves can create. These social media platforms were hardly designed for the sorts of things that they do. They’ve been reactionary, imperfect, and sometimes they seem outright biased – but there’s no real evidence showing it. It’s our own bias, until we get evidence, and social media networks are hardly known for transparency. Oddly enough, it’s an iron curtain.
If you’re going to play these games on social networks and you don’t know the rules the social network uses (which is really most social networks), you could be shooting yourself in the foot and not even know it.
The trick to all of this, in any form of advocacy, is not that people are traveling in the same or even different directions. It’s about the destination, and the destination a person has is what they are advocating for. It’s also about not destroying one’s own advocacy.
Speaking for myself in the context of Ukraine, I would like to see Ukraine’s sovereignty honored by it’s inhumane neighbor. I’d love to see the International Criminal Court do it’s job. I’d like all the children forcibly moved by Russia to Russia returned to Ukraine. That is my destination.
And to be frank, that doesn’t seem like enough, but that’s more than enough right now.
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