The early promise of the internet - to bring us closer together, better inform us, and spread liberty around the world – can seem naïve today. The internet’s actual effect on our politics, society, and security has been very different. The recent general election was marred by disinformation and fake news, while the outcome of the 2016 US Presidential election was influenced by foreign interference, both using means that didn’t exist ten years ago. Hate is on the rise, its prevalence and visibility transformed by digital technology. Countering these disturbing trends is the main focus of the Center for Countering Digital Hate.
It is indisputable that there has been an explosion of social media into every facet of how we learn about the world, build and maintain relationships and evolve our values as a society. Yet while this debate focuses on what Mark Zuckerberg or Boris Johnson needs to do to fix these problems, we shouldn’t forget that our own behaviour online can shape its utility. It is “social” media after all.
Ultimately, it’s us as people who shape the norms and values we exhibit and adhere to in social media spaces. This is the thinking behind the launch of our #BetterSocialMedia campaign.
The goal of the campaign is simple: to spread positivity on our social media feeds to show people that another online future is possible.
How often do we hear it said that Twitter or Facebook are “cesspits?” And the consequences of the pessimistic or angry tone of these platforms are widespread. To be a woman, a religious or ethnic minority, or LGBT in Britain today, often means having to face unacceptable attacks online. Meanwhile, the combination of disinformation and pessimism that can take hold on these platforms can lead people to feel powerless over huge issues facing our society. The online debate around the climate crisis, for example, too often disempowers to those who seek to educate themselves or advocate solutions, plunging them instead down fault lines between implacable foes armed with insults, not arguments.
But we have the power to change the tone of the online world with our own words and actions. Over the next twelve days, we hope to demonstrate how a small, concerted effort by all of us can make our new public arenas more inspiring and beneficial to society.
From today until 2 January, we will be attempting to counter the negativity of social media by sharing hopeful messages, articles and images on the topics that usually see social media at its worst. Whether it’s forms of identity for which people are attacked over or issues on which the online debate is overly pessimistic, disempowering and filled with disinformation, it’s time to fight online hate with love. Whether we are successful will depend on how many people join in.
On each day from 22 December to 2 January, with your help, we will be sharing stories that give the liberal, tolerant, and hopeful view on that day’s subject, ranging from migration and gender or sexual equality to polarisation and liberal democracy. We are partnering with several organisations, including the Jo Cox Foundation and Stonewall, and public figures like presenter Chris Packham and Obama fellow Alex Smith, who will help us get our messages out there. We invite you to visit our social media channels and get involved by sharing stories which have given you hope over the past year too.
At their best digital spaces like social media platforms can still bring people together, let us make new friends and enhance existing friendships, and spread knowledge around the world. If we change how we behave online in a small way, we can make a better social media.
Imran Ahmed is CEO of the Center for Countering Digital Hate