Wednesday, January 07, 2015

Status updates: ethical imperative, signaling, or both?

-My thoughts on this day are already summed up in something I just posted to Facebook:

Yes, the NAACP attack should get more coverage. No, the fact that the Paris attack (killing 12, as vs thankfully zero, and with major international implications) is more in the news isn't unreasonable. Nor (ahem, Twitter) should it be interpreted as evidence that The Zionists control the media.
What else can I say? I could add that it's upsetting to me for personal reasons when the staff of a publication that takes a stand against political correctness gets massacred, seeing as I was working at such a place until recently, but I can't imagine anyone in their right mind not being horrified by this.

-Tangentially related: Some journalists responded to my article about Facebook's sharing imperative by asking for more information about where I stand regarding the ethics of refraining to speak out politically on Facebook/social media. I've been giving this a lot of thought, and here's how I see it, at this particular moment in time; thoughts may evolve, or become less rambling...

There's a certain impulse to dismiss political status updates as either smug or pompous, or, conversely, as evidence of a foolish lack of discretion (one never knows what might upset a current or future employer). Armchair commentary has never had a good name, but social-media activism somehow has a worse one, quite possibly because the people status-updating about how a horrible thing in the news is horrible aren't risking much, and may even be motivated by a desire to seem caring or plugged-in, yet may appear to think that they're somehow saving the world.  This had long, at any rate, been my own impulse. As I've believe I've mentioned once or twice before, I'm no great fan of personal-life overshare, and thus tend to be biased in favor of discretion.

But political status updates aren't the same as cover stories about one's own family drama. Yes, it may be "signaling" when people strive to seem plugged-in, but... people should be plugged-in. I'd rather live in a society that gently pressures people (at least those who can do so without losing their livelihood) to speak out, or just to share news stories, than in one that treats social media like a stuffy dinner party, where anything even mildly controversial is to be avoided.

I do feel strongly, however, that no individual should be condemned for withholding any sort of information from any social-networking site - or, indeed, for avoiding these sites altogether. Friend A isn't a racist for failing to post about Ferguson - I mean, Friend A may well be a racist, but that's not good evidence. Publications can be taken to task for ignoring a story, as - I suppose - can demographic groups. Not individuals.

-Also tangentially related: My Tablet profile of Corey Robin, which also deals with questions of social-media political speech, can be found here.


Miss Self-Important said...

"I'd rather live in a society that gently pressures people (at least those who can do so without losing their livelihood) to speak out"

Isn't that kind of contradictory? The "gentle pressure" to "speak out" is also the pressure to speak correctly (that is, I assume you're not advocating that we pressure people to express on social media any and all sentiments that cross their minds). But the only way to make this pressure felt is to punish incorrect speech by such social means as disparagement, ostracism, livelihood loss. Don't these conflicting imperatives only lead to more "speaking out" of an extremely superficial nature, everyone posting the same meaningless verbiage and political pieties out of a sense of obligation to not merely read the news but to opine on it, knowing that their opinions are being screened for correctness?

Phoebe said...

Yes, absolutely, much of the posting that's out there - left and right alike - is about people who know their friends agree with them, preaching to whichever choir. Now, one might say that some of these friendships (esp. if we're talking Facebook-interaction friends, not the people one sees the most on a day-to-day basis) may be based in shared politics/worldview, so it's not necessarily that people are saying they think X when they really think Y in order to fit in.

Employers pose different concerns than friends, though. It's always possible to get new friends or to adjust settings (often the issue isn't that friends think postings are abhorrent, just that they're not interested), but quietly disagreeing with a boss's political views is a mainstay of the working world that's not going anywhere. If anything, it's getting more entrenched, now that opinions expressed can go viral, or just get forwarded, so much more easily. I'd sooner advocate for more/better-enforced laws protecting employees from being fired for their political beliefs than stigmatize those who actually do have to choose between saying what they think and paying their bills.

And yes, there's a sense in which some of the calls for more speaking-out are either assuming that those who are silent are holding back from saying the 'right' thing, or that silence should be interpreted as thinking the wrong one. I'm not sure if I'd read all such calls that way, though. I think, just to stick with the Ferguson example, the question was in part why white people didn't seem aware of the story. And there are ways of showing (and, more to the point, spreading) awareness, if one chooses to do so, that aren't spelling out (much of) an opinion - sharing a mainstream news article might work.

Miss Self-Important said...

I'm not sure the employer/friend dichotomy is so stark, especially for the people most inclined to have opinions to share in the first place (journalists, academics, policy people, professionals generally). Many of my FB friends are professional friends, and in that sense, potential future employers or influences on my future employers. But they are also friends, not just perfunctory connections. So it's not exactly like everyone lives in two wholly divorced spheres called work and life.

The second problem is that, in these fields, being fired for your political beliefs shades more easily into being fired for poor performance. If your beliefs include, for example, a view that Jews run the media, and your job is to teach any non-science discipline to students, or to represent constituents in public office, or write news about world affairs, then it is not too difficult to make a case that your opinions can intersect with your professional tasks in unacceptable ways (indeed, the case made against Salaita). Beyond that confluence of opinion with task is the simple social fact that if you have views of any sort that are unpopular with the people you work with and they want to punish you for them but can't do it directly b/c that's illegal, they will find some indirect reasons. We've noticed you've become a bit sloppier in your work ever since we heard what you said about the Jews running the media...

Neither of these is a problem caused by social media sharing; it's just the nature of opinion in social life. It's why we are instructed to keep unpopular opinions to ourselves in casual social settings, to "avoid religion or politics in mixed company." But if you're arguing that people ought to be "gently pressured" into sharing their opinions on social media because there is some moral benefit to having and sharing opinions, aren't you exacerbating both these difficulties? Once you establish a norm of public opining, and especially a very low level norm like what you describe by just sharing some news story to "raise awareness," then non-opining will necessarily be suspect. In a pre-social media world, non-opining could mean many things: you are dumb or not "aware," your opinions are distasteful to your social circle so you're withholding them out of a desire either not to offend or to preserve yourself, or maybe you have profound and articulate opinions, but no access to a public platform. Once you give everyone the requisite platform however, and you say that opining is a virtue and reticence a vice, then the only reasons left for failing to opine are ignorance and unspeakably evil opinions. You can try to ease people into public opining by guaranteeing them legal protection, but the law can't protect them from the social repercussions of having unpopular opinions. What does protect them is the reigning assumption that there are more than two possible reasons (stupidity, malice) a person could be silent. Take that assumption away by making witless pontification in "mixed company" a moral obligation rather than a form of rudeness, and you may eventually suppress all but the most flamboyant and useless kinds of dissent.

Or, alternately, you will put newsmedia back in the black by getting everyone to share every article ever published in order to appear both sufficiently "aware" that the thing happened, and unbiased enough to want to raise awareness of all the happenings and not some at the expense of others (which in itself signals malice).

Phoebe said...

1) I wouldn't assume that the people you mention are "the people most inclined to have opinions to share in the first place." Rather, I'd say that they're the ones who are generally understood as *allowed* to have opinions - when online-opinion-sharing is derided, it's when the proverbial acquaintance from high school is engaged in it. Meanwhile, Proverbial Acquaintance probably risks more when speaking out than do those in the categories you name. With journalists, having strong views (that fit somewhere in the mainstream spectrum - blatant racism is another story) will find their home somewhere (a National Review writer will likely alienate Jacobin, etc.), and with academics... if they have tenure, they can (usually) say whatever they feel like, and if they're adjuncting or still in early-mid grad school, chances are that unless something they write goes viral (which it won't, because jargon) no one's paying attention. (If Professor Oblivious can't be bothered to hand back term papers or read chapters, he's not Googling you.) Which leaves... assistant professors and those on the job market?

2) I think you're taking this to an extreme that doesn't quite relate to what I'm describing. What I'm saying is that until recently, there had been social pressure *against* seeming politically-plugged-in online. There's some good that comes from discussing ideas and current events, and that good doesn't magically switch to bad because the conversation's on social media.

3) Finally, I really don't see how gentle pressure along the lines of what I'm talking about would lead to the social and professional ostracizing of those who hold back. What I argued in the piece, and continue to think, is that people *should* be urged (again, in a general sense, not in a YPIS/individual one) to reflect on their engagement in these conversations, and not to cynically dismiss all such participation as smug posturing. I think people who never weigh in on anything, not out of a fear that they'll lose their job, but out of a fear that the post won't get as many likes as a (proverbial) cat video should feel a little squirmy about this. But yes, agreed that for some, personal and professional contacts are quite blurred. My I-only-hang-out-with-physicists-despite-not-being-one privilege was showing.

Miss Self-Important said...

I think we are concerned about very different victims. Who are these people who never post b/c they fear not getting more likes than a cat video? Why do we want to push these people to post if their main motivation for expression is to gain affirmation in the form of likes? Why should they be made to feel squirmy - b/c they're vain?

Also, when has there been socially pressure against seeming politically plugged-in? There has been something like social pressure against talking about politics in "mixed company," but that was never because it would make you seem too savvy, but because it would unwittingly offend an interlocutor. The closest thing I can think of to a pressure against appearing to know or care about politics is the adolescent norm of not wanting to look like a "nerd" by liking school, but that drops off precipitously in adulthood.

As a consumer of social media, I'm annoyed by political posts not because I would prefer to see cat videos and am angry that the person in question has failed to supply me with them, but because I often find the actual content of the posts to be wrong, foolish, etc., much as I'd feel about someone at a party who railed at me directly for 20 minutes in the same terms. People certainly have the right to do either, but I don't think I have an obligation to enjoy it. And from the prospective of a producer of social media, I prefer not to post on politics to certain audiences (eg, Facebook) b/c I wish to avoid making my contacts feel about me the way I feel about some of them, not b/c I fear losing out in a popularity contest to teh cats. So I don't get the cat angle.

caryatis said...

I'm with MSI. I love opining on Facebook, but I have to consider the fact that I don't want to give my future colleagues material to use against me in a competitive profession. If I express any opinion on a contentious issue like Ferguson some percentage of my Facebook friends are going to think I'm a terrible person for disagreeing with them. And no law is going to change the fact that people who are well-liked have more opportunities than people who are not. If I say something anodyne like "how sad, people died" I add zero value to the conversation.

As for "raising awareness," isn't that what news sites are for? It's very unlikely that my post will be the first time someone hears about an important event--I don't get up that early. And those white people who "didn't seem to be aware" of Ferguson? Some of them were keeping quiet because they knew they would be smeared as racist if they spoke.

Phoebe said...


Will get to this soon.


Re: "isn't that what news sites are for?", increasingly, no. People are learning about news stories for the first time from Twitter and Facebook. Now, it's possible to lament this, but not quite so easy to turn back time and make it otherwise.

And re: "no law is going to change the fact that people who are well-liked have more opportunities than people who are not", there's then the question of what it means to be "well-liked" through social media. Every post risks offending someone, but not posting/participating at all sadly means people may forget you exist.

Miss Self-Important said...

"not posting/participating at all sadly means people may forget you exist"
They may forget you exist on social media, but if your concern is not with daily reminding strangers of your existence, but with navigating the social world you physically live in, the relevant people will remember you again when they see you at conferences, job interviews, etc. And when they do, it won't be with the sour memory that, "here's my politically hostile feed spammer!"

Phoebe said...


Re: invisibility, the fact is that a great deal of personal/professional networking happens on social media. The friends you see on a day-to-day basis will remember you, but staying off entirely means forgoing some job-interview-type opportunities.

And re: cat videos... I think the reason people making the why-aren't-people-posting-about-X arguments bring them up is because someone who's posting silly stuff clearly is using social media. It's a way of excluding those who haven't figured out social media or are legitimately too busy to use it.

Miss Self-Important said...

Well, I'm not sure I'm going to forego an academic job interview by not posting about Ferguson on my FB. The only people who can see what I post already know me, so I'm not going to get new contacts by opining. Networking for some professions/people happens on social media, but it's not really required for all. So this argument requires a more specific demographic breakdown rather than a blanket "it would be good if everyone posted more politics" sort of claim.

The cat video argument still isn't clear - is it that the cat video posters themselves really want to post about Ferguson but fear insufficient likes (as you said earlier), or that activist types want the cat video people to post about Ferguson and are correct in their desire, or...?

Phoebe said...


I have mixed feelings re: the cat video example, esp. because everyone I can think of who posts political stuff to Facebook also posts more silly stuff.

I think we've reached the point in this thread where I'm convinced you can out-argue me, but not that you've convinced me I'm wrong.