The Briefing Room: Twitter Fingers Turn to Trigger Fingers

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Is social media saving or destroying democracy? That was and is the question. Several professors from across the United States came to Sierra College to express their views based on their research. Upon receiving a welcome speech from the brilliant Dr. Winsome Jackson, the audience was ready for another Cesar Chavez Higher Education Speaker Series. The moderator, Marcos Breton, is an Opinion News Columnist from the Sacramento Bee and has been in the field of journalism for about thirty years and counting. He came at it with an obvious bias towards disliking the impact of social media on democracy that the professors had to oppose or support with facts.

Dr. Bryan Gervais, from the University of Texas in San Antonio, was the first to put in his two cents. Gervais argued that we the people, control nothing in terms of platforms, but that this concept is not new. The difference is that now, the rate in which this occurs and circulates is much quicker. Dr. Gervais questioned if in fact we’re actually reverting back to the initial stages of media where people that weren’t professionalized participated actively in journalism. Gervais emphasized that any one of us, each individual, has the potential to go viral. Dr. Monica Stephens, from the University of Buffalo in New York, adds on to this in saying that this dates back to the 1800s, when misinformation was actually common and happened at large when the printing press came out and printed many misinformed pieces.

Brenton states his bias that he thinks public opinion is fickle and can be swayed rather easily by stronger forces, proceeding to ask University of Louisville’s Professor, Dr. Jason Gainous, if President Donald Trump used Twitter to get elected, and the answer was yes... Among other things. Trump’s twitter feed he says, consists of one sided, short sided youtube videos that paints his administration in the most positive light, and the consumers are reinforced in their positions that they agree with, therefore no resulting cognitive dissonance occurs. In terms of public opinion, Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Dr. Adam Berinsky, denotes the problem to the fact that most Americans do not care about politics, we look for sound bites and overall avoid engaging in politics. Therefore, public opinion is easily to manipulate, because people don’t heavily research each and every policy issue, and therefore can be led to support horrible things.

Brenton states that Facebook is the ultimate evil. Algorithms within social media reinforce positions that people already gravitate towards politically, which reinforces the rural-urban divide where rural areas don’t have big media that reports on important local news. Dr. Berinsky places the ownice instead of on the people to be more critical thinkers, to make the news more interesting. This is why we have seen the rise of partisan news networks, the people of the United States stay away from uncomfortable news, so conservative Republicans generally watch Fox News and more liberal Democrats will watch CNN. Dr. Stephens speculates that within the realm of social media, benign content is not what goes viral, it is in your face hate and reaction imagery that circulates fast, upping how much that information is distributed. Dr. Gervais in turn, argues that infotainment isn’t actually a bad thing necessarily, because that is how the American consumer wants to receive their news, so whatever it takes to force feed people news that don’t want to hear it.

The professors resolve the issue in coming informed when reading the news, considering the source of your information. The moderator puts a lot of the responsibility on the young people, to the future, and this is common rhetoric, but those who retain power are older and systems are based on seniority. There are age limits imposed to when you can run for office, and so the question comes to: How can those with authority shift the injustices that are happening now? How do we put responsibility on those in power, now?

Recorded at the Sierra College Rocklin campus, on 3.14.19

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