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Is social media doing social harm?

Social media apps

Jason Howle under a Creative Commons Licence


YES: Security researcher Meredith L Patterson co-founded the field of language-theoretic security in 2005. Her research examines how errors scale into systemic cascade failures. She is based in Brussels, Belgium.

It’s hard to answer a question like this, often because of the binary expectation that if a thing does harm then it cannot possibly also do good, and vice versa. The good that social media does comes from the unprecedented rate at which it brings people together, without regard to distance or time. Unfortunately, so does the harm it causes.

The internet’s scope also erases human intuitions about the scope of actions we take there. In a room or on a street, we have an idea of how far our voices carry, but a single tweet can fly around the world before its author steps off her plane, as happened to Justine Sacco.

The biggest harm I see, though, may be the most difficult to perceive: structural harm towards non-mainstream subcultures. Autistic culture and hacker culture, just to name two subcultures I’m part of, have sharply different communicative norms from white Western mainstream culture.

Both also face pressure from mainstream culture to abandon their norms in favour of mainstream ones. As social-media technology shifts from primarily text-based messaging to more and more immersive real-time messaging (such as Periscope), many autistic users will find that a social environment which used to make them peers with neurotypicals [those not on the autism spectrum], now reinforces their difference and recapitulates their offline marginalization.

I’m all in favour of removing barriers, but reforms must be based on sound reasoning.


NO: Deanna Zandt is the co-founder of and partner at Lux Digital, a New York-based agency which creates measurable emotional resonance. Her work focuses on the intersection of humanity, technology and justice.

Certainly the mob aspects of social media have got out of hand – though I honestly have little sympathy for someone like Sacco, who is a communications professional, working in the media space. More deserving of sympathy are the everyday people who are run off the internet for their everyday views and experiences, like the teacher in Arizona who was harassed into hiding after expressing her support for the non-profit organization Planned Parenthood (disclaimer: a client of mine).

What gets to the heart of this question of harm is whether or not it’s possible to use the existing social tools and develop new platforms that create empathy and, as Sam Gregory of Witness.org says, solidarity. Humans definitely aren’t built at all for text-only communications – we all know that body language and tone affect how we receive information, but it turns out that’s pretty deeply hard-wired into us.

Studies have shown that voice and body language move those messages up to higher emotional processing cortices in our brains, while text-only communication goes straight to our amygdalae. The amygdala is our fight-or-flight centre, so, if some tweet somewhere doesn’t sit well with us, our brains think we’re being chased by cheetahs and respond accordingly.

Thus I think a combination of emotionally resonant and connective tools, along with digital literacy skills and education, could go a long way to resolving the current strife we’re seeing. I completely agree, actually, with your take on non-mainstream communities particularly suffering under the weight of social norms prescribed by a dominant group. I’m interested in exploring ways not just to replicate those norms online, but to create new cultures of nuanced emotional interaction.


In many ways, we’re violently agreeing with each other. I’m sceptical of your invocation of solidarity, though. Since ‘solidarity’ is a rallying cry on both sides of any arbitrary line in the sand, the cheapest way to signal solidarity with one side is to attack people on the other side of the line. Angry mobs have formed throughout history, but social media’s unique contribution is to lower the cost and increase the range of both participation and co-ordination in solidarity-driven partisanship. This is the opposite of the empathy we both want to create.

Your point about the amygdala is important, particularly given its role in people’s responses to out-group members and group polarization. To any group, universalizing its preferences and norms looks like the Obviously Right Thing To Do. Out-groups disagree.

The internet’s scope erases human intuitions about the scope of actions we take there. In a room or on a street, we have an idea of how far our voices carry, but a single tweet can fly around the world – Meredith

This universalizing tendency appears even in your reply. Is Sacco ‘universally’ less deserving of sympathy, because someone in her profession should know better? Or is she less sympathetic ‘to you’ because she marked herself as part of your out-group?

I absolutely agree we need more nuanced emotional interaction. But driving partisan solidarity and giving winners a mandate to universalize their perspective is the opposite of nuance. True compassion requires us to understand the Other well enough to be the Other if we had to.

When 98.4 per cent of people have a theory of mind that only lets them generalize from their own experience, is identifying with the Other at this scale even possible? In this I share your and Sam Gregory’s goals, but not your optimism.


I appreciate deeply this understanding of solidarity – it’s incredibly important to look at this from the perspective of in-and-out-grouping. I think solidarity continues to play a role in social media with the people who can crisscross and walk in many worlds. Ensuring that those folks understand the privilege they bring to the table and giving them the bridge-building work can go a long way to creating the kind of multi-group solidarity in which we all have the opportunity to thrive.

Hashtags on Twitter can be used to share stories that marginalized voices have previously been unable to penetrate in a mainstream way… When people have the strength and support to do so, they punch through the structures of silence – Deanna

One of the differences between our very parallel lines of thinking here seems to be that we’re talking about many different kinds of discourse conducted via social media. We are using the idea of winners and mandates, an area where there are campaigns and wars being waged online.

However, I’m also thinking again about other kinds of conversation, ones that don’t necessarily include that mob element. I’m thinking about how hashtags on Twitter can be used to harass and abuse others, but also to share stories that marginalized voices have previously been unable to penetrate in a mainstream way.

I’m thinking about the stories around sexual violence, abortions, undocumented workers, structural racism. It requires those folks with stories to do an intense amount of emotional labour sharing these, but when people have the strength and support to do so, they punch through the structures of silence.

Thus, I actually don’t think I’m a supreme optimist, but rather trying to seek a full spectrum of experience, and ways to strengthen the stories, and platforms, that bring people together in empathetic solidarity.


I’m glad you bring up this distinction. There’s a race between cross-pollinating solidarity and ‘solidarity’-driven partisanship, and too few people recognize it. Even fewer recognize that partisanship is winning.

In an information-rich society where attention is finite, conflating identity with community membership is an appealing cognitive shortcut. The intended product of the emotional labour of hashtag campaigns is such a focal point of unity. We see hashtags to destigmatize depression or debt, but where are the hashtags for the truly scorned, like felons or the seriously mentally ill – the Others people are afraid of being?

In the optimistic long view, it’s easy to say ‘their time will come as communication breeds understanding and compassion’. But in the meantime, cheap access to cultural capital is easily exploited by bad actors who establish themselves as focal points within affinity groups in ways that polarize groups even further. For multifocal solidarity to win, a critical mass of humanity must choose to do no harm before anything else, including gaining status. This work is unglamorous, but the objective we both want demands it.

Using game-theory principles here, it is easier to be infamous than famous as long as helping is costly and harming is cheap. Humanity needs an immune system to protect people from exploitative defectors within their own affinity groups, and by lowering the cost of help and harm alike, social media has both accelerated the need for such systems and failed to provide them.


Bad actors: YES. I’ve been in discussion for years on what to do, for example, about predators who operate within communities whose bonds are based on values of justice and fairness. Silence keeps the container closed: they manoeuvre by exploiting the goodwill of the larger community, while victims add up. That goes beyond social media, of course, but I do see these tools as relationship management ones, and their potential use to model new ways of thinking about, and implementing, trust.

To be clear, I never want to give the impression that I advocate a model of ‘your time will come’ when it comes to social change and improving conditions for all humans, digitally or not.

This has been a major point of failure of every non-intersectional social movement: ‘Don’t worry about your ability to vote, your time will come. Don’t worry about mandating equal pay, your time will come. Don’t worry about protection from harm with regard to bodily autonomy and/or gender identity, your time will come.’ Enough is enough.

As for social media’s role in accelerating the ability to help or harm, this is exactly why we have to look at the structures that create and support the tools we’re using.

If we’re relying on tools that are built largely by cisgender straight white men with a narrow lens of humanity, we are, frankly, doomed. When we build platforms, our bias is built into the code and algorithms we develop, without question. I’m looking forward to continuing to support and elevate a future in which all of the nuances and criticism are incorporated.

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