Twitter Is Transforming Modern Protest. It s Vital That We Use It Right

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"It's a fire truck," my 2-year-old said when he heard sirens wailing in the distance. The echoes were coming from downtown -- where [ a Louisville man named David McAtee was shot dead by police] less than 12 hours before.
My children and I were in our backyard, well out of harm's way in a suburb east of the Kentucky city proper. But tragedy operates according to its own law. My wife Lindsey -- a runner [ like Ahmaud Arbery], a woman [ like Breonna Taylor] and black like McAtee, [ George Floyd] and countless other innocents killed by police -- feels the pull of fear and grief and anger more than most on our block, including me, her white husband.

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Like many others over the past few weeks, Lindsey has shared her thoughts on Instagram, which is owned by Facebook. She's found the platform helpful for processing, connecting with friends and participating in events.

But even as Twitter and Facebook support efforts to organize and spread messages amid a complex and quickly evolving social movement against racism, I see another more troubling pattern emerging. These platforms also enable the [/news/amid-george-floyd-protests-social-media-is-weaponizing-misinformation/ rapid spread of misinformation] and partial truths that threaten to damage the message of a crucial historical moment. 

Social media might be impeding the revolution as much as it's facilitating it. Luckily, we have significant power to keep the influence of social media positive -- if we're willing to put in the work.

Read more: [/news/amid-george-floyd-protests-social-media-is-weaponizing-misinformation/ Amid George Floyd protests, weaponized misinformation floods social media]
Modern technology, centuries-old injustice
Living in the heart of Southern Baptist country, which [ overwhelmingly supported President Trump in 2016], Lindsey and I often find ourselves in the position of explaining systemic racism to skeptical friends and acquaintances. By now our routine is pat, with corresponding books we can pull off the shelf while we trade talking points.

From [ slavery], through [ Reconstruction] and the implementation of [ Jim Crow laws], the [ FBI's targeting] and [ assassination of civil rights leaders], [ legal redlining and housing discrimination], [ mass incarceration] (including of [ disproportionately wrongly convicted black men]), [ resegregation of schools] and of course the [ ongoing] [ violence] [ black] [ people] [ experience] at the [ hands] of [ police] -- racism is woven into the fabric of America. This country is and has from the beginning been [ hostile to people of color], and [ in particular black people].

The manifestations of racism have changed over the years, and so have the means of overturning them. Yet none of these tools has brought into relief the global scale of social struggles quite so starkly as social media.

Rain or shine, [ #LouisvilleProtests] continue down Broadway for [ #BreonnaTaylor] and [ #DavidMcAtee]. []
— Rae Hodge (@RaeHodge) [ June 5, 2020]

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Without platforms like Twitter, Facebook and Instagram, which are sources of news and information for billions of people, it's hard to imagine large-scale protests like those recently seen in [/news/apple-pulls-hkmap-live-app-used-in-hong-kong-protests/ Hong Kong] or [/news/lebanon-reportedly-drops-whatsapp-tax-as-protests-sweep-the-country/ Lebanon], or [ the Arab Spring] nearly a decade ago, achieve their global reach.

But times are changing.

Democracy watchdog [ Freedom House]'s Freedom on the Net Report 2019 paints a dystopian picture of social media's effects on our global political landscape. "State and nonstate actors employed informational measures to distort the media landscape during elections in 24 countries [in 2019 alone]," it states.

2020 seems no better: One Carnegie Mellon University computer science professor [/news/amid-george-floyd-protests-social-media-is-weaponizing-misinformation/ recently crunched numbers] on protest-related tweets, and estimated between 30% and 49% were posted by bots. In the past week, many of the most popular trends on Twitter have centered on conspiracy theories.

At a time when there's a huge need and demand for credible info about what's going on, Twitter's trending topics are even more of a tire fire than usual. Almost all the top U.S. trends related to the protests today are either conspiracy theories or misinformation. []
— Will Oremus (@WillOremus) [ June 1, 2020]

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Twitter isn't alone. Facebook has had more than its share of controversies in recent years, from hosting disinformation campaigns around the [/news/facebook-cambridge-analytica-data-mining-and-trump-what-you-need-to-know/ 2016 presidential election and Brexit] to unwittingly facilitating the [ genocide in Myanmar]. Still, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg insists on hosting [/news/mark-zuckerberg-jack-dorsey-and-the-fight-for-social-medias-soul-facebook-twitter/ patently false or violence-inciting] political statements in the US. This demonstrates a staggering level of ethical inconsistency by continuing to fact-check every other type of ad on his platform.

Read more: [/news/black-lives-matter-before-you-protest-know-your-rights/ Black Lives Matter: Before you protest, know your rights]