Using social media wisely

NICK EICHER, HOST: Next up on The World and Everything in It: policing social media.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg had long opposed government oversight of his social-media behemoth.

But earlier this month, he did an about-face. Zuckerberg says he now thinks the U.S. government ought to regulate online speech.

MARY REICHARD, HOST: Zuckerberg’s change of mind comes after last month’s deadly attack in New Zealand. The killer used Facebook to livestream his rampage.

Australia and the U.K. are now considering holding social media executives accountable whenever something like that happens.

Here now to talk about how we got to this point is Stephanie Bennett. She’s a professor of communication at Palm Beach Atlantic University, a Christian college in south Florida.

Good morning, Stephanie!

BENNETT: Good morning, Mary!

REICHARD: I think from the very start of the internet and social media, it’s been the Wild West frontier without boundaries or any set rules. Does it seem like things are better or worse now than back then?

BENNETT: Well, innovation is always disruption. It requires time for the public to sort of get up to speed on how to use the innovation well, the technology well. So what’s happened in this Wild West of the internet is basically that our social connections take place with much greater ease and speed. And Mr. Zuckerberg’s early MO was move fast and break things and that worked, but it was really irresponsible in regard to the public good, really. And so important things and essential things to our democracy and to our world like accuracy and truth, you know, and the simple social protocols are tossed aside in the name of getting eyes on the screen.

REICHARD: I think it’s worth noting that social media companies are private entities. So they haven’t had governments telling them what they can and can’t have on their platforms. But after the New Zealand mosque attacks, that’s when Facebook said it would start blocking posts about white supremacy and white nationalism. Other platforms have attempted to police some content that they find disagreeable. Why do you think Mark Zuckerberg just now wants to cede some control to the government?

BENNETT: Clearly he sees that he’s in over his head. I mean, he cannot control content nor does he want to. But, you see, the architecture of the system he created simply does not allow his company to act fast enough to block such things as the New Zealand massacre shooter’s video. I mean, I read that they deleted upwards of 1.5 million of these videos in just 24 hours and they still couldn’t get it under control.

REICHARD: Calls for regulation focus on “harmful” content, or “hate speech.” But we know those are loaded terms. What you call harmful, I might say is important information worth sharing. For example, LGBT advocacy groups would certainly consider posts about Biblical sexual ethics “harmful.” Should Christians be worried?

BENNETT: Hmm. These are really complex questions and important things to discuss, but I’m not sure worried is the issue. Throughout history Christians have often found themselves pitted against the current of the culture in which we are living, you know? So in that sense this isn’t anything new.

So, rather than worry, I think our response is to be proactive and positive. To foster education and civility. To become better examples of it. To get more serious about praying for discernment and patience and invest in our communities instead of isolating ourselves from them. These are better options than entering into the rants or wringing our hands.

One of my favorites is Francis of Assisi. He had so much wisdom when he said, “Preach the gospel at all times and when necessary use words.” I think that’s a good maxim to live by, especially in an era where words have become so cheap.

REICHARD: Professor, do you have any advice for students using social media?

BENNETT: Oh, yes. I would say be very careful, students, what you post. The posts follow you. I would also tell them that their ideas are going to change as they move more deeply into adulthood and they don’t want to be judged at 30 for what they wrote at 18 or 16 or 15 or 20. So, a good rule of thumb is to make room in our lives for embodied relationships. That is, invest time in the people in places where true conversation is possible.

I think another cautionary or bit of advice that I would give is understand that true conversation is not really possible on Twitter. It’s not really possible, it’s not a platform, Facebook is not a platform for true conversation. Yes, we’re able to send messages and exchange information and there’s something terrific about that and there’s fun involved there, but it’s not biologic. It is depersonalized.

Overall, I think we need to remember that we serve and love a living God and He’s given us the opportunity to use living speech. That is, speech that acknowledges the other as other and doesn’t try to make the other in our own image. Again, perhaps this involves listening more than we speak.

REICHARD: Stephanie Bennett is a professor of communication who specializes in social media at Palm Beach Atlantic University. Thanks for joining us today!

BENNETT: Thank you so much, Mary. Have a good day!

(AP Photo/Jenny Kane, File) In this March 13, 2019, file photo Facebook, Messenger and Instagram apps are are displayed on an iPhone in New York.

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