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PROFspectives: Opinion and Expression

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In a single decade, the rise of billion-dollar social media platforms has radically altered not only how we communicate, but also how we manipulate. How radically has this new communicative infrastructure altered the reality of personal expression, basic political engagement, and more?

Social media—is it a liberating tool for the common individual, a deadly weapon for the powerful, or a little bit of both? In this month’s edition of “PROFspectives,” Pace professors weigh in on how the social media information economy has altered the essence of public conversation—and weigh the short- and long-term consequences of this sudden transformation. With one of the most contentious presidential elections in United States history right around the corner, is social media a cause, a symptom, or simply the messenger?

Erica Johnson, PhD
Associate Professor, English
Dyson College of Arts and Sciences

Before I get to the social media and literary intersection that is #TrumpBookReport, let’s talk about screens. The most pronounced impact that social media has had on literary activity is that it has mobilized texts on screens—after all, who reads social media on paper? By definition, the language of social media, whether literary or not, is electronic. In my classes, I have witnessed a shift in my students’ reading practices from paper to screen, although inexpensive paperback versions of the novels I teach remain the most popular (and I would argue, most effective) medium for serious study. I’ve also seen students swipe through the thousands of tiny screens it takes to read a 600-page novel translated from Turkish on a phone. The research on screens versus paper is pretty consistent in concluding that readers remember less and have a harder time grasping the complexity of a text they read on a screen, whereas paper provides a kinetic and spatial connection to the mind and body that works to deepen memory and understanding—as of our present cultural moment. As unlikely as it seems, the toddlers who are growing up trying to digitally scroll through their parents’ paper books and magazines may be rewired to fully absorb War and Peace or Beloved on their iWatches in some not-so-distant future. Who knows?

If you want to visit a current intersection of social media and literature, though, head to #TrumpBookReport on Twitter. This hashtag blew up after the final presidential debate of the season. [To wit: “The problem with Narnia—which is a disaster by the way—is OPEN BORDERS. Just letting people POUR in through the wardrobe” (Sam Tett)].  Most of the tweets riff off of American or English classics and they feature a heavy emphasis on children’s literature; the tweets thus offer us a snapshot of a contemporary (Twitter) canon. They also remind us that, even in the decentered world of social media, literature forms a basis of community and an enduring source of meaning in the face of dangerous forms of pride, and in the face of prejudice. You can check the Jane Austen tweets on that one.

Jason Whitesel, PhD
Assistant Professor, Women's and Gender Studies
Dyson College of Arts and Sciences

Has social media become a “weapon of mass distraction” and shrunken our attention spans even more than television already had, as Cornel West asserted when he spoke to Pace students on October 13, 2016? West may be right. As professors, we should be impelling students who may be caught up in the hypercompetitive struggle for social media attention to find their own voices. While the media invading our attention via TV, newspapers, and magazines rewards political mediocrity, social media thrives on a sea of negative political stories and retweets of misinformation. I concur wholeheartedly with West, that social media spectacles cannot consume us. We cannot allow effective social and political movements, those that engage with real issues and actual lives on the ground, to get lost in the shuffle.

In the current presidential campaign, we are guilty of having become complicit in doing just that—witnessing mediocrity trump intellectual and political brilliance, while the media makes revenues by covering material that dummies down American culture. When a politician garners massive attention online for saying that he hates immigrants, people of color, women, and so on, and that he can shoot someone in broad daylight and not lose his constituents, and when social media users circulate such infotainment as if it were newsworthy, it is time to stand up on behalf of human intelligence. Therefore, what is desperately needed is for all of us to acquire critical media literacy so that we can utilize the knowledge gained to become smarter consumers of information and to scrutinize media representations of politically questionable behavior.

Barry Morris, PhD
Associate Professor and Chair of Communication Studies
Dyson College of Arts and Sciences

“Demagogues” Simulation, and Politics in the Age of Social Media

Much like the babysitter whose failure at making microwave popcorn confirms that the batteries in the smoke detector have died, Donald Trump has stumbled in doing America a great service.  His pedantic mumbling bluster has illuminated the dirty little secret of not just political campaigning but of the whole corporate enterprise of national opinion management and manipulation. This roach on the operating room wall calls not just for the eradication of the pest but for the top-to-bottom fumigation of the entire institution. Whether Mr. Trump loses or loses epically, he will have demonstrated beyond doubt that the American political system is not about ideas, personalities, or social dynamics. It’s about math and only math.

Presently, the task of getting a candidate elected is to assemble data on the social make up of every political precinct in the relevant area—in this case the entire United States. The stat whizzes know within a small range of error who and how many will be voting for candidate A or candidate B early in the process. Their task is to pass on to the “issues” people data on whom to solidify and whom to turn with which issues and claims. The process is statistical marketing, not fundamentally different from selling cars or soap. In a KIA car commercial, a mother comes away from her child’s first pee wee football game devastated that he will forever be a failure at sports. How on Earth that would motivate a person to buy a KIA could only be explained by the social scientists who inform the marketers who created such a monstrously cynical ad. Big time political campaigns operate in the same mysterious way. Everything down to the color of the campaign bus is determined by social psychology and marketing science.

Social media has been touted as a possible balance against such “mind-control.” The ability of everyone with a digital device to debate, fulminate, or excoriate about any issue that comes to mind would free us from the grasp of Big Idea! Social media though has had just the opposite effect. Why? Because the biggest of the Big Ideas is the personal brand. Over the past decade, “experts” in many fields—including higher education—have pushed the notion of the personal brand. It’s not what you are; it’s what people see. In the words of a Bush Jr. adviser after 9/11, “We don’t care about the facts. We make our own reality.” Branding is not about content. It is only about outcome. The sole criterion is acceptance of the pitch. There can be few nuanced arguments in a 140-character tweet, an Instagram photo, or a 30- second video. There can only be affect created by the confluence of self-serving content and a carefully “curated” list of followers.

On the upside, from the point of view of an instructor of persuasion, the communicator knows his/her audience. On the downside, the communicator rarely enjoins that audience to seriously challenge their thinking. The memes (which aren’t really memes the way Dawkins defined the term), terminology, and especially enemies list of social media posters are common knowledge among them. The content of posts is far less important than the context of posts. Do they reify the brand? Do they trigger the desired communal impulse to identify and belong?

Trump—by going off script, making wild spontaneous racist misogynistic claims, being unable to control his nonverbal communication and his penchant for stalking—has become the emperor who turns the tables by shaming the audience with the reality that it wears no clothes.

At the risk of appearing as cynical as I actually am, I want the reader to dig up that photo of Hillary Clinton finding out that the Cubs are going to the World Series. I’ll wait right here… Is that photo spontaneous? Did Chicago Tribune photographer Todd Lightly just happen to have his camera out when some combination of a phone and the candidate’s aide broke the news? Empty plane. Straight on shot. I am cynical enough to believe that the shot was staged in exchange for exclusive access to the “moment.” But in the present political context charging her with an ethical lapse would be absurd. We can edit our Instagrams and Snapchats. We can delete and retweet our tweets. We can and often do brazenly steal other peoples’ content and display it as our own with no serious consequences. All that matters is affect. Whether I display my formidable stash of lipsticks or my contemptible racism, I am displaying it for me and mine. The hissing of the crowd is merely reinforcement of the gulf that protects us from the rabble. If you are offended by my message, you may have had no business following me in the first place!

Ironically, it is safe to assume that the make up of our online “tribes” will not, over the long run, be rooted in social and/or political terms. Facebook, Google, Apple, and most of the other major tech players already know everything about us. When they group us together they aren’t doing so on the basis of tastes, opinions, or habits. They are doing so on the basis of algorithms that most of them don’t even comprehend. All they know is that when they push the button the algorithm lights up and the money comes gushing in. The Republican and the Democratic technocrats are in possession of their own money-gushing button. And those people at the rallies, caucuses and stump speeches are the ones who help them push it. There is no way out. It is the new reality. It’s all about the math. To paraphrase President Lincoln: The world will little note nor long remember what we say here, because noting and remembering have been long since deleted from the internet agenda. #iiwii

Vanessa J. Herman
Assistant Vice President for Government and Community Relations
and Adjunct Professor

How Radically Has the Proliferation of Social Media Transformed Basic Political Engagement?

I firmly believe that social media has changed the conversation of basic political discussions and nowhere is this more relevant that in this presidential election cycle. We have come a long way since the birth of the 24-hour news cycle in 1980 when CNN made its debut. Fast forward to 2016 and there is a growing, and seemingly endless appetite, for news but not in the traditional sense that we had all grown accustomed to such as print media and the nightly news. Satirical programs like The Daily Show and 24-hour news networks such as Fox News, CNN, and MSNBC, need to fill air time on an ongoing basis. What better way to do that than to analyze, dissect, and discuss each and every controversial or explosive tweet our 2016 presidential candidates have been sending out into the universe at all hours of the day and night.

Think about this: Twitter was not relevant a decade ago and now it is shaping the course, and discourse, of this presidential election. In the blink of an eye and in 140 characters or less, Donald Trump (*12.7 million followers) or Hillary Clinton (*9.96 million followers) can tweet out a message that will immediately be seen around the world by millions and millions of people. This is both a blessing and a curse if you stop to think about it. In the rush to be first with breaking news, fact checking often takes a back seat to expediency and stories are tweeted and retweeted regardless of accuracy. The real question we should be asking is do we deserve better? I think we do.    

*As of October 24, 2016 at 5:00 p.m. EST      

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