It’s impossible to avoid news about how harmful social media can be. The Cambridge Analytica scandal. The ubiquitous Russian bots. The lackadaisical response of tech industry leaders to privacy violations, election meddling and harassment.
All the optimism about social media as a vehicle for social change that followed the Arab Spring in 2011 has largely dissipated. Twitter — which once prompted users with the innocuous question “What are you doing?” — is now better known as a home for unforgiving criticism, stripped of the politeness that can soften real-life interactions. Many have become social media cynics.
Despite it all, the way we use Twitter made this decade better.
Rightful critiques of social media, and Twitter in particular, shouldn’t obscure the significance of the conversations that have happened there over the past 10 years. As we enter 2020, powerful individuals and societal problems can no longer avoid public scrutiny. That’s thanks in part to those who have demanded attention through the website. The online activism and commentary that take place on Twitter are often dismissed as expressions of “cancel culture” or “woke culture.” But a closer look reveals what’s really happening: Many people who lacked public platforms 10 years ago — the young and members of marginalized groups in particular — are speaking up, insisting on being heard.
For our forthcoming book, “#HashtagActivism: Networks of Race and Gender Justice,” my colleagues and I studied how groups including African-Americans, survivors of gendered violence and transgender women have used Twitter to build vibrant communities and to influence news and politics. We found that movements like #BlackLivesMatter and #MeToo, while they had pre-Twitter origins, were pushed into mainstream consciousness by networks of ordinary people sharing firsthand stories, making demands and developing shared political narratives on the site. Without Twitter, these campaigns for race and gender justice would still exist, but they wouldn’t have nearly the same momentum.
It’s well known that African-Americans’ influence on Twitter — where they are overrepresented both compared with their numbers in the United States population and compared with other demographic groups who use the internet — shapes meme culture, fashion trends, slang and humor. But it also fuels cultural criticism and political demands.
Just look at the record: With #OscarsSoWhite, users drew attention to the 2015 and 2016 nominations that featured no people of color in any of the lead or supporting actor categories. That hasn’t happened since, and in 2019 the hashtag’s creator, April Reign, was invited by the academy to attend the award ceremony. When a CNN headline about a black man found hanging from a tree in Mississippi inexplicably focused on his criminal record, #CNNBeLike inspired parodies of the network’s framing and the prevalence of racist media stereotypes. That was undoubtedly noticed by journalists responsible for deciding how to present reporting to their audiences. #CosbyMeme, a hashtag that originated with the actor’s own account and asked fans to create memes about him, was hijacked to redirect focus to his assaults on women. #IfSlaveryWasAChoice captured the absurdity of Kanye West’s bizarre analysis of American history, using stinging sarcasm to make clear that the rapper was not to be taken seriously.
Without Twitter, far fewer Americans would have heard the names Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown and Sandra Bland — black people whose deaths have become synonymous with #BlackLivesMatter activism. When users deployed the hashtag #TamirRice — the name of the 12-year-old black boy who was holding a toy gun when he was killed by a police officer — alongside #EmmettTill, the platform was being used to link current events to the long history of anti-black violence once documented by accounts like Ida B. Wells’s 1895 book “The Red Record.” These digital campaigns pushed many major news outlets to report more thoroughly on police shootings. The ways in which local and federal agencies collect and track use-of-force data have changed.
Long before #MeToo, hashtags like #YesAllWomen (used to note the pervasiveness of misogynistic violence), #GirlsLikeUs (used to discuss issues facing transgender women) and #YouOkSis (used to draw attention to black women’s experiences with street harassment) were deployed by diverse groups of women to illustrate how, to borrow the old feminist refrain, the personal is political.
Twitter users have disrupted a media landscape where gatekeepers — in an industry that has always fallen short when it comes to race and gender diversity — were for too long solely responsible for setting the agenda of what we talked about as a country. While most Americans do not have Twitter accounts, journalists and politicians often do, and they have turned heavily in the past decade to the activists, scholars and people of color on Twitter to inform their coverage and policies. When they haven’t done so, these communities have responded resoundingly online. And America has listened.
Twitter has fundamentally altered the ways many communities interact with the media, as users feel empowered to challenge harmful framing. “I think the presence of Asian-Americans on Twitter has actually really showed journalists, editors and people in general in the newsroom how it is important to cover Asian-American issues,” one user told my colleagues and me in an interview for a report published by the Knight Foundation. “With Twitter, you can call out a publication if they mess up, or if they don’t cover certain topics. Now there’s accountability.”
Film producers, television writers and advertisers have changed the way they create content to respond to fans who express their views online. Showrunners from USA Network and the CW have acknowledged the influence of Twitter fans on the content of their programs. Hashtags like #NotBuyingIt have called brands from Huggies to BMW to account for sexist ads. After a boycott promoted on Twitter, the Hallmark Channel reversed a decision to exclude advertisements featuring a lesbian couple. Gone are the days when a piece of art could promote stereotypes, demean women or ignore the existence of people of color without a backlash. Professional critics might identify these problems. Twitter users definitely will. They’ll demand better. And many times, they receive it.
It’s not surprising when powerful people resent Twitter, calling the critiques that come from it too negative, too intolerant, too sensitive. Twitter didn’t invent knee-jerk reactions, conflict or polarization, but it did expand the set of voices all of us have to hear.
Like all technological tools, Twitter can be exploited for evil and harnessed for good. Just as the printing press was used to publish content that argued fervently for slavery, it was also used by abolitionists to make the case for manumission. Just as radio and television were used to stir up the fervor of McCarthyism, they were also used to undermine it.
Twitter has fallen short in many ways. But this decade, it helped ordinary people change our world.
Sarah Jackson is a professor at the University of Pennsylvania and a co-author of the forthcoming book “#Hashtag Activism: Networks of Race and Gender Justice.”