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Meta, Musk and MAGA: Report-out Long Read

Folks, we had SO much fun gathering almost 200 of you for Flannel and Blade’s inaugural F&B Campfire Series to talk Meta, Musk and MAGA. What could have been a dungeon of doom and gloom around the many issues we face in our roles in social media (insert ‘ugh’ emoji) was a pretty wonderful conversation about…well…hope, change, and opportunities for a ‘new normal’.


Our session wasn’t intended to be a “how to” so if you're hoping for some tech tips, you’ll find links to some cool stuff at the end of our report-out.


But, what our session was is a response to the massive shake-ups happening in social media. Capitalism is cracking all over the world: people are rising up here and quiet-quitting there. AI and other technology is exploding into a cultural Renaissance, with an ever expanding division of audiences and growth of niche sub-subcultures.


That leads us to ask: what are the biggest risks of social media, for organizations in the world today, who are trying to do good? We hope that you'll see by the end of our report-out, that sometimes even these kinds of big shake-ups can lead to silver linings.

 

Turned off or turned on: a world confronted with increasing polarization


Our speakers started with the small matter of polarization on social media. Folks, we started big, we started deep. Buckle up. It’s worth the ride.


The world is increasingly polarized on every - single - thing. And every communication that an organization puts out has the possibility of being questioned or pushed back on. For nonprofits, it’s so easy to get put off by the negativity, and sometimes outright aggression, that can come back at you. We’re all individuals who process and understand information differently, and it’s hard for non profits who are trying to reach as broad an audience as possible with their messaging—the reality is, you can’t please everyone.


But, where the light comes in is that nonprofits can (and do) model a better kind of public discourse than the aggression we sometimes sadly see from other people online. Orgs who have the opportunity to go out to people that support them through social media have the opportunity to change the narrative on polarization every single day, over and over, and on every single platform, by posting as a force for good.


It also presents the opportunity to take stock of our audiences on our platforms, and learn how to have healthier relationships with more social platforms, so we are not dependent on any one of them.


What doesn’t help is when big platforms like Twitter get rid of the Accessibility, Ethics, and Accountability team and different safeguards. It’s a big problem as hate speech isn’t being moderated. People fall under the online disinhibition effect, where they say things online that they would never say in a million years to someone face to face.


Many organizations and individuals have built dedicated followings on Twitter and simply abandoning those relationships is not sustainable or fair. People depend on those communities for information, leadership, and connection. That being said, there is valid concern about the quality, safety, and long-term viability of the site under Elon Musk’s ownership.


Should the latest news from Twitter change how we do business as agents of social change? It depends on what you’re trying to achieve and how, and if the platform can be helpful for your cause. The reality is that we just don’t know where this is going, and haven’t for some time now.

We heard an example of the Internet and social media working against the mission to do good in the world:

“We are on platforms generating content for Elon Musk and Mark Zuckerberg - what are the ethics around that? All I want to do is get people to my webinar, and yet now I'm actually creating content, and being monetized to create posts and I don't know what to do about that. Polarization makes money. Hate equals engagement, and engagement equals money. Global Witness ran an investigation where they were putting out test ads on Facebook, YouTube, and TikTok which were actually calling for the deaths of election workers in the U.S. They did this to see what the platforms would do when faced with such blatant hate speech and violence.
YouTube and TikTok re-called the ads instantly, but Facebook let them through. So unfortunately for NGOs and nonprofits, it is a really difficult landscape to navigate because if you’re a nonprofit with service users, you have to meet the people where they are and that means navigating through the jungle that currently is the Internet and social media.”

The discussion picked up further on the distinction of ‘Internet’ and ‘social media’, and good vs bad:

“I think the Internet is inherently good, but what's dangerous is that we have started to blur the lines between social media and the Internet. Email is run on the Internet, which allows us to do the work that we do and to find out about all the kinds of things that we need to know about. Online news is part of the Internet… So I think it's just that it breaks down barriers and access to information, democratizes access to information, and allows people who otherwise would not have a chance to build businesses, friendships, fall in love, fall out of love - all the ways of expressing themselves, fully online. For minorities and marginalized people, the Internet can be a really safe space at times. I think social media is inherently good. It's just the models that we have right now for the way these platforms are run aren't good.”

So what’s still good about Twitter?

  • It remains a valuable platform for staying attuned with the news cycle, identifying trends and rapid response opportunities for campaigns, orgs, and individuals.

  • It has long been the go-to platform for campaigns and individuals looking to enhance media advocacy, deepen relationships with issue experts and members of the press, and engage with key stakeholders and audiences.

  • The EU has also been firm about it needing to abide by strict content moderation requirements.

 

Digital dangers: centering those most at risk of polarization We asked Hera Hussain, founder of global tech nonprofit Chayn, to expand on the people who are most at risk from the issues of polarization online, and who do we need to re-center and refocus on.

“Survivors of abuse, women, and marginalized genders are at heightened risk because there is little in the way of consequence in checking up on someone online, or sending people death threats and rape threats. According to a Pew report, roughly four-in-ten Americans have personally experienced online harassment, and 62% consider it a major problem. Many want technology firms to do more, but they are divided on how to balance free speech and safety issues online.
Certain groups are more likely than others to experience this sort of trait-based harassment. For instance, one-in-four Black people say they have been targeted with harassment online because of their race or ethnicity, as have one-in-ten Hispanics. Queer people are targeted for their sexual orientation, women because of their sex, non-binary and trans people because of their gender, whereas straight white men get backlash because of their political views. If we can make online spaces safe for the most marginalized, it will be safer for all of us.”

Hate speech issues to be aware of:

  • Elon Musk has made clear his intention to weaken community standards on Twitter, making room for more trolls, hate speech, and misinformation — and allowing Trump back on. There was a surge in hate speech and harassment since Musk took over.

  • Within hours of Musk's team closing the $44 billion deal, anti-Semitic and racist tweets surged on the platform. A few days later, Musk himself shared a link to a false conspiracy theory about the violent attack on Speaker Nancy Pelosi's husband, Paul Pelosi.

  • A lot of the terribleness is directed at women. People who have other marginalized identities have been experiencing this all along. So with Musk's commitment to what he refers to as free speech—or he describes himself as a free speech absolutist—we've already seen, immediately after his takeover of the platform, that there was this surge of racist and misogynistic crap.

  • General Motors. Volkswagen (VW/Audi/Porsche) announced they're pausing their ad spending on Twitter in response to changes at the company — and amid growing hate speech on the platform (use of racial slurs and epithets grew 500% since the company went private).

  • Immediately following the purchase of Twitter, research groups such as the Network Contagion Research Institute flagged a sharp increase in both racist, misogynistic, anti-LGBTQ+, and anti-Semitic language. Continuing to engage with Twitter can pose brand safety and reputational risks in the following ways:

  1. Organic and promoted tweets could potentially appear next to hate speech and other negative or controversial content, creating backlash for an organization or individual.

  2. Investing in paid media on Twitter could be perceived as “agreeing” with the company’s current policies and management of hate speech, inviting criticism from watchdog groups. For example the NAACP and ADL have both made calls to action for advertisers to boycott the platform until a clear hate speech policy is put into place. This, along with other concerns, has led to brands like General Motors, Mondelez, and Pfizer, as well as agencies like Interpublic and Omnicom to pause advertising activity.

  3. If you work with populations at risk of harassment or those who rely on anonymity, act as if Twitter is no longer a safe space to share personal information, because it is not. We recommend shifting to hosting sensitive communications via mailing lists and other platforms for the time being.

How to handle tech risks:

  • Put security at the forefront. The security situation has deteriorated faster than most expected. Staffing shortages across Twitter mean that the site is a considerably less safe and less responsive platform than before.

  • Practice digital hygiene. Prepare for anything associated with your account to get into the wrong hands or become public. Clearly map out who has access to your accounts. Avoid linking your bank account or critical information. Clean out your DMs. And clearly document and limit who has access to your organization’s Twitter credentials.

  • Don’t leave just yet. Threat experts are concerned that the turmoil at Twitter, including the sudden lack of cybersecurity leaders and many community moderators, will cause parts of the site to stop working and, at worst, that security holes might lead to compromised accounts. But deactivating a Twitter account also poses risks because an impersonator could then more easily manipulate a person’s followers.

There are real people with real life issues, and sometimes life threatening problems, that rely on nonprofit social channels for support and information. If you are a nonprofit that has service based users that connect with you on Twitter, if you decide to exit the platform, you need to sign post people to where you’re going and leave information so people know how to find you.


And remember: even if the platforms lose their safeguarding teams or requirements, you still have the power to safeguard your nonprofit through community management. You can pick and choose which comments are seen, which comments are deleted, which comments you respond to, how you phrase the language that you use in your own little pocket of good. So if you're still showing up in that community, there's no reason why you have to lose that community.

 

Massive-shift mode: the need to evolve, keep up, and pass the mic

The pandemic stripped back how we connect with people. When we couldn't go outside, we spent more time than ever online, looking for connection and entertainment. An explosion of social media trends bubbled up and are here to stay; for example, pre-pandemic, everything was highly branded with big video editing budgets and heavy filters. Now, that kind of polished approach doesn't always fly.


During the uprisings after George Floyd was murdered, we saw a really big trend in “PowerPoint Activism,” where people would take an issue and break it down into ‘explainer’ slides. Now everybody uses them, from the BBC to New York Times, to your activist pal on the street.


Social media has shifted and nonprofits need to follow suit. We need to step away from megaphoning and start passing the mic. It is really about social listening and being tuned into what your community is saying and needing from you. You have to go where your communities are and embrace this kind of stripped back social media landscape. Influencer outreach is a good example of how people don't want to hear from big shiny celebrities or companies anymore, it's all about hearing from people with lived experience through user generated content. We must embrace this so we don’t just slip back and try to reproduce pre-pandemic “normality.” This is all about creating a New Normal.


Check out this book by Professor Thomas Roach where he talks about how in work, play, education, and even healthcare, we are using social media to approximate “normal life” before the pandemic. Roach explores how Grindr and other dating apps can help us envision a radically new normal: specifically, antinormative conceptions of selfhood, and community.


Humans, and communities, are no longer a homogeneous blob. We are all special snowflakes (reader, this is said without any sneer BTW - we are literally a one in a billion chance of being ‘us’, and therefore as unique as each individual snowflake is!) and we wish to be communicated with in the way that suits us best.


That might not be great to hear as a nonprofit, because it takes more money, capacity, effort and time to engage with people than it does to just post another announcement. But in this “new normal” we've got to spend time in the niche pockets on TikTok, and where people are finding re-elected identity and community in groups on Facebook, for example.


The question isn’t as simple as ‘should I stay or should I go?’ - it isn't only about the mechanics of getting out or staying in, and what you need to do. What we wanted to get to is this, what should nonprofits, charities, philanthropists, foundations, and all in between, be doing to take advantage of this moment and make some lemonade out of these acidic lemons, and make everything better for us all? If these monoliths fall over, how do we take advantage of these moments?


Organizations need to fundamentally change the way their comms teams are organized and staffed. There needs to be more capacity within teams to do social listening and build relationships with the people in their communities.


Fay Schofield, founder of digital consultancy Catnip Comms, says:

“Folks need to start putting personal power, capacity, and budgets into comms teams. Dive into subreddits, get into the comments of a YouTube channel, jump into those nitty-gritty conversations and stop putting all the effort into “Come to our webinar,” “Read our blog,” “Look at this thing” - it isn’t working, which is why engagement is through the floor across social media.
This is where social listening can help. Social listening is about listening to your community, looking at your mentions, and responding to the people who engage with you. It’s about keeping tabs on the conversations around your brand, about your nonprofit, and about the calls to action/cause that you're part of as well. There are a multitude of different tools to do this, such as Sprout Social and TweetDeck. It's all about getting into the weeds with your audience. So, get active in that Facebook group. Mine those groups for user-generated content. Amplify. Pass the mic. Keep tabs on who's talking about your issue, and what your community is saying, and be willing to jump in.”
 

Rising from the ashes: how a crisis can spark creativity and silver linings


Some people remember a time without the internet. Some people remember a time without social media. There was life before any of these social media apps existed. All social media platforms are in flux, and if there comes a time when a platform ends (hope you’re sleeping well, Vine) there’s a valuable lesson in accepting that change happens, and what’s important is adapting to what’s next.

Social media is constantly evolving with new features, new audiences, and changing goals. Right now, there’s an opportunity to do what you should be doing anyway: increasing your platform monitoring! With the increase in fake brand accounts, community managers should be using social listening tools to follow the conversation around your brand.


There have been notable shifts over the years as Facebook simmered, Snapchat peaked, Instagram evolved, TikTok accelerated, and now Twitter is transforming. A strong social media strategy uses various platforms for specific purposes, so this is a good time to take inventory of your digital program and consider how your presence on each platform or channel serves your long-term goals.

 

AI Renaissance, Digital Disruptors, and the future of social media


If you haven't had a chance yet, go and take a look at a Chat GPT. It will absolutely blow your mind. It can write you a five paragraph essay on basically…anything!


Thomas Young, Partner of Flannel & Blade, says:

“I know you're all going “I don't have enough capacity to do three tweets a week, and I can’t afford all these software subscriptions as nonprofits” - we’re all usually strapped for cash and capacity, and there's too much on your plate. You’ve got to report to funders and things like that. So I would encourage you to start to think about using a lot of these tools—it bears saying, not as a straight-up copy and paste—but using them for inspiration and opportunities to free up space for content generation. You can then spend your time cultivating content in your organization that's really interesting and that's actually applying your knowledge, rather than spending all day doing more mundane tasks. Let’s automate the boring stuff and spend more time on the stuff we love doing as communicators.
There are some risks to ChatGPT, such as job losses and malpractices that could be going on with this AI generation, but we're truly in a tech and artistic Renaissance and I'm excited and motivated by that. Especially if we get this technology in the hands of good people who could use it for good. I think there could be a lot of really positive changes. This conversation might shake up our Comms teams in nonprofits. There's so much opportunity that's been bred from change, it is going to be really hard to test and learn what's going to work, but I just feel like now is a really exciting time for change.”

Fay shared her experiences of living in California during 2020 amid the Black Lives Matter protests and how this type of remote activism was aided by digital disruptors:

“I couldn’t attend any marches in person due to my Visa restrictions - one warning from the police and I would have been shipped straight back to the UK. I'm at home, surrounded by thousands and thousands of people taking to the streets and calling for change, but I can’t join in.
So I went on to Reddit and found a thread, which was like “if you can't join the protest today, join us on Discord” that asked people to tune in to the police radios, listen to what people are saying and type it into Discord to be shared with people on the ground. I was sitting there with my little headset, tuning in and listening to the radio calls of the Oakland Police, and it was really surreal. But I just felt like I was kind of part of the action.
Social media is always being disruptive. The Internet's always being disruptive. But now that we’re in this Wild West kind of landscape where we don't really know what's going to happen, it brings the opportunity to come through change in a way that we've never ever never seen before.”

There are significant issues around safeguarding, like people uploading unwanted media files and unsolicited pictures, and image based abuse and online harassment. While Twitter hasn’t been going the way we want, there's some really clear progress on other platforms. They're creating safety boards, they're talking more to nonprofits. The feminist movement and the racial justice movement has made a dent in this space. We might not be as far as we want but we need to celebrate the progression that’s been made on accountability.


We were asked if Mastodon and newly forming alternatives can scale to accommodate the outflow, if people really do migrate from Twitter…


Well, if Twitter falls, there will be an alternative. We've seen it happen. We've been through MySpace. We mentioned Vine. We've been through Bebo. When change happens, if there is a community, they will follow. And if Musk finally pulls that plug, the one thing that’s important for nonprofits is that backup plan: how are you going to communicate that with people in terms of some tangible steps?


Organizations have run polls on Twitter to find out what other platforms their audiences are using.

  • They’re driving people to sign up to newsletters to stay in touch.

  • It's about safeguarding your relationship with supporters so you don’t lose them. The biggest takeaway from this is trying to get ahead of your community early so they know where else to find you.

So, let's look at Mastodon. It’s been around for a while, and it definitely is a niche community. It can be a difficult platform for a lot of people because of the user experience and the server set up. It's a trying time for the team at Mastodon because of this sudden influx of people - their safety standards were not built for this increased size and that's something they're working through! If you're curious about it and you're interested, we recommend setting up an account that matches the interests of your organization, to help find the right server for your nonprofit.


What Mastodon lacks is a lot of what makes Twitter so unique, just because it hasn’t got as many users. Where else can we talk to Barack Obama directly?! So we’ve been used to this amazing access to people. But, capitalism and necessity will bring a new platform where we are still able to talk to Obama. We just don't know what that is today, unfortunately, because we can't see in the future.

In a way, the issues with Twitter are a good test case for how markets respond to this unprecedented level of breakdown. We've seen advertisers leave Twitter in droves because of how Elon is handling the situation. Yet people, the actual users, are still there. Because Twitter is the World's ‘town square’, everybody's invested in its future, which is why a lot of followers and activists are sticking around to see what happens, because ultimately, we all benefit from it remaining a good place.


So, we said you needed to buckle up for all this - and we’ve saved the biggest question for last…


Is the Internet good for society?


There is a glint of hope! The needle is moving in the right direction. Slowly. And maybe not perfectly. And not as much as we'd like - but it is moving! With brands dropping ‘problematic’ people like Kanye West, for example, there’s a good indication that capitalism can swing towards the middle eventually. That there’s a conscience. That there is a right and wrong.


It’s really easy to say “What's the point? Can I just throw my phone out the window?” and go and live in a cabin somewhere—and you can, you absolutely can—but also look at this beautiful world out here, too. Stay connected. The Internet and social media can help you find love and community and spaces where like minded people show silly cat memes or thirst traps or calls to action. Find your community.


There's still love, joy, and humanity in those things.

 

Resources

What are other people doing?


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