Empowerment, Community, and Empathy in the Social Media Era

A cross-university initiative convenes scholars on how to navigate—and benefit from—these highly divisive platforms

Recent Pew research reports that more than 80 percent of Americans have used at least one social media platform. At the same time, said Deb Roy, director of the MIT Center for Constructive Communication, there is growing distrust between groups and significant gaps between fact and perception, all amplified by these platforms.

Roy and four other researchers spoke as part of the panel discussion “Constructive Dialogue in the Age of Social Media,” held on April 2. It was the fourth installment of the “Dialogue and Action in an Age of Divides” series, which nearly 5,000 people have attended to date. 

The series, which began this winter, has convened faculty speakers and attendees from across nine Massachusetts universities, including Tufts. The series was conceived at a moment when institutions of higher education have been challenged to bring their campuses together for generative discussions around contentious issues, notably the Israel-Hamas War.

Roy, the moderator, was joined by Linda Charmaraman, senior research scientist at the Wellesley Centers for Women and director of the Youth, Media, and Wellbeing Research Lab at Wellesley College; Jonathan Corpus Ong, associate professor of global digital media and director of the Global Technology for Social Justice Lab at UMass Amherst; Brooke Foucault Welles, associate dean of research and professor of communication studies at Northeastern University; and Nick Seaver, assistant professor of anthropology and director of the Science, Technology and Society Program at Tufts University.

The panelists agreed that social media does not make it easy for its users to have constructive dialogue, which Roy defined as “those forms of communication that foster authentic and accurate understanding of others.” 

To highlight one of its limitations, Roy drew from the world of architectural design. He offered the metaphor of the “intimacy gradient” provided by a well-structured home, with its public spaces—a front yard, a foyer—and increasingly private spaces like a kitchen, and finally, a bedroom. In stark contrast, Roy noted the poor job that social media does of providing safe, trusted spaces that are conducive to constructive dialogue because the public is uninvited. 

One of Seaver’s aims at Tufts is to have students interrogate the ways in which technology infrastructure shapes our lives. One of his areas of research: the development of algorithmic recommender systems such as those used by Spotify and Netflix, often, he noted, characterized as “nefarious” technologies. Seaver cautioned viewers, though, against overstating the actual effectiveness of these systems—eschewing “the narratives of technological determinism”—to keep from disempowering themselves and other users of the platforms.

Social media, said Roy, has the demonstrated ability to give a megaphone to stereotypes and “encourage people to ignore the humanity of others and even pave the way to dehumanization.” Adding to that thought, Seaver noted the difference between reasonable—if strongly felt—political opinion and a statement that dehumanizes. “My political rivals are really bad people that should stop having power over others,” for example, is not the same as “My political rivals should be dead.” 

Insofar as users of social media are managed by the platforms that they are using, Seaver said, that, too, is “pervasive, low-level dehumanization that’s ubiquitous in our online spaces, which are constantly nudging you to act in some way or another.”

The Possibility for Change—and Hope

The panelists also offered reasons to feel optimistic about social media’s effects on discourse. Among the research interests of Foucault Welles is online activism, specifically the moments when messages by or about people who are part of stigmatized or marginalized groups break through into the mainstream. 

Social media has been, she said, a “real game changer” for getting issues included in news coverage or political discourse. She has studied, for example, the 2014 murder of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, to try to understand why that tragedy broke through to the national consciousness. Foucault Welles’s research suggested that community members were able to use social media in strategic ways to get Ferguson into the national dialogue. 

She cited a recent study by a former Ph.D. student that revealed social media not only mobilized Black Americans to protest but also got their white friends, who had seen the stories online, to attend the protests as well. 

“I think there‘s no more promising way that we might use social media than to introduce new stories to make us empathetic with different ideas, and to have people actually show up to create social change,” said Foucault Welles.

Those breakthroughs can have lasting impact, she said. “Everyone knows what #MeToo means now, right?” she said. “Not everyone’s participating in those conversations the way we want, but more people are participating now than they were in 2015, more people were participating in 2015 than they were in 2000, and so on. Progress is incremental and there’s always going to be fits and starts, but I feel hopeful that [social media] is still a place where this can happen.”

Signaling a possible way forward, Charmaraman discussed her lab’s engagement of young people as potential co-designers of new social media platforms. In her experience, students express a keen interest to be seen in all their complexity—and not just as “one piece of data” or the sum of their online behaviors. 

When they use social media, Charmaraman said, young people desire to be seen “as humans who have differing emotions and moods” and not simply to be the target of numerous ads delivered by algorithms. She stressed the importance of having young people at the table as new technologies are developed.

Echoing the note of opportunity, Foucault Welles reported her analysis of the use of the hashtag #GirlsLikeUs. 

Initiated by trans women advocating for trans women’s rights, the hashtag was attached to significant moments of activism, acknowledgement of celebrity awards, and other high-profile activities. But she noted that most #GirlsLikeUs posts reflect “just mundane things … people talking about their lives and trans women being women and being regular people.” She noted the “humanness” offered by the hashtag, that it became a “place where people who want to understand the trans experience can go and … just see regular life.”

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