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Twitter is transforming modern protest. It's vital that we use it right

Commentary: Social media might be impeding the revolution as much as it's facilitating it.

David Priest Former editor
David Priest is an award-winning writer and editor who formerly covered home security for CNET.
David Priest
6 min read
Getty Images

"It's a fire truck," my 2-year-old said when he heard sirens wailing in the distance. The echoes were coming from downtown -- where a Louisville man named David McAtee was shot dead by police less than 12 hours before.

My children and I were in our backyard, well out of harm's way in a suburb east of the Kentucky city proper. But tragedy operates according to its own law. My wife Lindsey -- a runner like Ahmaud Arbery, a woman like Breonna Taylor and black like McAtee, George Floyd and countless other innocents killed by police -- feels the pull of fear and grief and anger more than most on our block, including me, her white husband.

Like many others over the past few weeks, Lindsey has shared her thoughts on Instagram, which is owned by Facebook. She's found the platform helpful for processing, connecting with friends and participating in events.

But even as Twitter and Facebook support efforts to organize and spread messages amid a complex and quickly evolving social movement against racism, I see another more troubling pattern emerging. These platforms also enable the rapid spread of misinformation and partial truths that threaten to damage the message of a crucial historical moment. 

Social media might be impeding the revolution as much as it's facilitating it. Luckily, we have significant power to keep the influence of social media positive -- if we're willing to put in the work.

Read moreAmid George Floyd protests, weaponized misinformation floods social media

Modern technology, centuries-old injustice

Living in the heart of Southern Baptist country, which overwhelmingly supported President Trump in 2016, Lindsey and I often find ourselves in the position of explaining systemic racism to skeptical friends and acquaintances. By now our routine is pat, with corresponding books we can pull off the shelf while we trade talking points.

From slavery, through Reconstruction and the implementation of Jim Crow laws, the FBI's targeting and assassination of civil rights leaders, legal redlining and housing discrimination, mass incarceration (including of disproportionately wrongly convicted black men), resegregation of schools and of course the ongoing violence black people experience at the hands of police -- racism is woven into the fabric of America. This country is and has from the beginning been hostile to people of color, and in particular black people.

The manifestations of racism have changed over the years, and so have the means of overturning them. Yet none of these tools has brought into relief the global scale of social struggles quite so starkly as social media.

Without platforms like Twitter, Facebook and Instagram, which are sources of news and information for billions of people, it's hard to imagine large-scale protests like those recently seen in Hong Kong or Lebanon, or the Arab Spring nearly a decade ago, achieve their global reach.

But times are changing.

Democracy watchdog Freedom House's Freedom on the Net Report 2019 paints a dystopian picture of social media's effects on our global political landscape. "State and nonstate actors employed informational measures to distort the media landscape during elections in 24 countries [in 2019 alone]," it states.

2020 seems no better: One Carnegie Mellon University computer science professor recently crunched numbers on protest-related tweets, and estimated between 30% and 49% were posted by bots. In the past week, many of the most popular trends on Twitter have centered on conspiracy theories.

Twitter isn't alone. Facebook has had more than its share of controversies in recent years, from hosting disinformation campaigns around the 2016 presidential election and Brexit to unwittingly facilitating the genocide in Myanmar. Still, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg insists on hosting patently false or violence-inciting political statements in the US. This demonstrates a staggering level of ethical inconsistency by continuing to fact-check every other type of ad on his platform.

Read moreBlack Lives Matter: Before you protest, know your rights

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A useful mess

My wife and I have been struggling to sleep over the past two weeks. Lying beside our snoring 2-year-old, who as always has crawled into our bed and koala'd himself to me in the night, I worry.

So I turn on my phone and continue the endless scroll. I follow a diverse array of thinkers on Twitter. (I've left other social media platforms for privacy reasons.) I don't tweet much, but I retweet useful stories I've read, videos of the protests and insights from rising leaders.

And I'm struck by a paradox: This problematic platform is also vital to our current moment.

As we've increasingly seen with police body cams, it's unrealistic to expect authorities to use technology -- social media included -- to hold themselves accountable. But if we use social media well, it can impose accountability on institutions that participate in great injustice.

So the question is, how do we do that?

Any one of us can fall for false or misleading content, but propagating disproven claims can quickly damage credibility and destabilize larger arguments or movements. This is precisely why my wife and I have worked so hard to have sources for every claim we make in the conversations we have with our peers. To achieve large-scale, structural change, we have to demand high standards of truth for ourselves and our allies, especially online.

Facebook and Twitter can and should help qualify voices that historically have spoken with authority in our culture, especially now that they often throw around invective and outright liesTwitter and Snapchat have both taken steps to do just that. 

But you also have the tools to confirm posts you see on Facebook and Twitter. You have the resources to look for uncut versions of videos. And you have the responsibility to delete or amend your posts if they've been shown to be false, or based on false premises. That means you shouldn't take police reports at face value, you should look for corroborating videos that show different angles and you should read takes by people on all sides of the conversation -- maybe even if those takes shouldn't have been published in the first place.

Most fundamentally, you are the only one with the power to seriously educate yourself. With the internet, our cultural knowledge is broader than ever, and increasingly as shallow as a Wikipedia page. But that doesn't have to apply to you.

Social media is crucial to this moment -- as useful for distributing videos of police abusing protesters as cameras are for capturing it. But left to its own algorithms and consumed uncritically, social media is not and will never be enough. Revolution takes people who are motivated and educated to pursue change. The same is true online as it is in the street and in the voting booth.

The daily work

Lindsey teaches at a gym near where protesters were shot with pepper balls two days ago. This morning, she left to unlock the doors at 4:45 a.m., nearly two hours before curfew ended for the past week. I stayed awake while she drove and scrolled through Twitter while I waited for her to text.

For many of us right now -- especially those of us who can only protest during the day or support the revolution with donations at a distance -- social media has become a sort of ritual. And like many rituals, its power is derived from its collectivity. We bow over our phones throughout the day, thumb through Twitter, feel our way haphazardly toward truth, in synchrony with millions of others.

The hope: If we work with care and conviction, we can excise lies and amplify truth. It's important work, work to be done in the minutes before you get out of bed, in the quiet moments between work assignments, and when you can't sleep at night because police helicopters are flying low overhead. 

And it's work that, in all its mundanity, may well determine the future of our country.

Read moreHow you can help Black Lives Matter protesters if you can't attend in person