When the news broke Monday that Elon Musk had acquired Twitter, the reaction among many was predictably dire. Hofstra University associate professor Kara Alaimo, for instance, forecast on CNN that the sale “may be the death knell for the social media platform.” And under the ominous headline, “Twitter Under Elon Musk Will Be a Scary Place,” Greg Bensinger suggested in The New York Times that when Musk insists Twitter be an “inclusive arena for free speech,” what he really means is “free speech for people like Mr. Musk.”
Those voices and others speculate that people won’t want to use a platform that spreads what they consider to be “questionable” content.
These are precisely the concerns, of course, which have motivated well-intentioned efforts — accelerated since the election of former President Donald Trump — to use moderation on social media platforms in order to encourage people to have the right kinds of conversations. About the election. About the pandemic. About sexuality and gender. About climate change.
If only we could help people embrace the right information and diligently combat misinformation — the argument goes — then we could ensure individuals (and society as a whole) would be moving forward in “healthy” and “safe” ways.
It’s understandable that many found this line of thinking comforting, given the political, social and public health turmoil of recent years. But equal numbers have found it all a bit creepy, prompting some of us to crack open “Brave New World” or “1984” for the first time since high school.
There’s nothing wrong with strongly advocating one’s convictions about truth to all the world. But when any particular view gets enshrined in a state or media entity with power to dictate thought and action for millions of lives, that’s a whole other story.
Which is why many of us see news of Twitter’s new ownership as something to celebrate, not a sign of impending doom, and why some people who had left the platform wasted no time in returning.
Thanks to new ownership, I’ve decided to come back! 😊— Mark R. Levin (@marklevinshow) April 25, 2022
The new ownership also presents a unique opportunity for right-leaning and religiously oriented Americans who had given up on social media completely.
Rarely a week goes by that I don’t hear of some other friend bragging about deleting all social media accounts. And can you really blame them?
From animosity to censorship to pornography, online social engagement presented lots of risks — and seemingly few benefits. Yet as people of faith have fled social media, they’ve also made it an even more barren landscape intellectually and spiritually.
Perhaps it isn’t yet time to flee into our ideological bomb-shelters? Indeed, in this very moment in time where blue checks on Twitter threaten a mass exodus, could it be time for normal Americans to move in the opposite direction — reclaiming ground they had been ceding in “the new public square for discourse and engagement,” as Utah state Sens. Stuart Adams and Mike McKell called social media last year.
I sure think so. And I’m definitely not the only one encouraging you to “stop deleting your Facebook” and Twitter accounts. Referring to the “small trickle” of efforts to communicate hopeful messages through social media, Elder David A. Bednar encouraged an audience of Latter-day Saints in 2014 to “help transform that trickle into a flood” in a way that could “sweep the Earth with messages filled with righteousness and truth — messages that are authentic, edifying and praiseworthy.”
Such counsel echoes the earlier wisdom of Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis, who wrote in 1927 that when a need arises to “expose … falsehood and fallacies” or “avert the evil” around us, “the remedy to be applied is more speech, not enforced silence.”
It’s not just Christians, of course, who have things of great worth to share with the world. Imagine what would happen if everyone took the opportunity to share what they found to be good, true and beautiful with the world. What a world that would be!
Of course, we don’t live in an Edenic intellectual world where everyone opening their mouth has something beautiful to share. And as such, we should take seriously reminders that “Twitter has never been a place for rational, nuanced speech” and cautions about changes that could inadvertently push away “thoughtful users” who “aren’t going to voluntarily keep using a platform on which they’re bombarded with abuse.”
Clearly, some kind of moderation will always be helpful anywhere ideas are exchanged, be that online or in person. But no amount of policing can replace our own collective exercise of virtuous exchange reflected in basic practices of civility and decency in our sharing, coupled with enough humility and curiosity to listen as others do the same.
Throughout virtually all of human history, that sharing of goodness has happened personally. One by one. House by house. Door by door. Occasionally in a synagogue — or perhaps standing on a wall in the city.
What would these ancient teachers have thought about standing up on a Facebook wall? Would they have scoffed and turned away in disgust at the vitriol that some people post back in response? Arrows certainly didn’t stop them in real life — they continued to share despite being “cast out, and mocked, and spit upon, and smote upon our cheeks.”
Will rhetorical threats stop us from sharing our hearts? I hope not. Because the risks of bringing uplift and encouragement into someone else’s life is worth a high cost.
None of this, of course, means we need to become “social media experts or fanatics” as Elder Bednar later cautioned, adding, “we do not need to spend inordinate amounts of time creating and disseminating elaborate messages.” This is important to remember because overuse of social media can threaten to eclipse meaningful activities in people’s lives.
Yes, the risks and dangers of social media are real. Christopher Cunningham once raised concern about the strong pull of our surrounding culture to make “peeping Toms” of all of us, as we look in on people’s lives with obsessive fascination — alternately craving aspects of someone else’s lives and then “reveling in another person’s sin, crimes, escapades or misery.”
But we can also choose to “rejoice not in iniquity” and to use Twitter and other platforms for good. Now’s as good a time as any to start.
Jacob Hess is the editor in chief at Public Square Magazine and served on the board of the National Coalition of Dialogue and Deliberation. He has worked to promote liberal-conservative understanding since the publication of “You’re Not As Crazy As I Thought (But You’re Still Wrong)” with Phil Neisser. With Carrie Skarda, Kyle Anderson and Ty Mansfield, Jacob also authored “The Power of Stillness: Mindful Living for Latter-day Saints.”