Facebook Is a Better Platform Than Twitter for Discussing Racial Injustice
Neither are perfect, but Facebook might be the lesser of two evils right now
The world has been watching the daily protests and riots caused by the murder of George Floyd. Those following the protests on social media might also be looking for the language, facts, figures, histories, and stories that explain how we got to this point. Journalists and academics work to fill in those gaps, covering the protests and writing about issues of racial injustice. They make threads giving historical context, publish and share reporting, and give book recommendations — largely on Twitter. But, though Twitter is an important tool for accessing and spreading information during this societal upheaval, Facebook may be the better platform for educating readers.
Studies from the Pew Research Center in 2019 show that Twitter is disproportionately used by people who are more highly educated. And the vast majority (80%) of tweets come from a small minority of Twitter users (10%). So tweeting out content and historical context is more likely to enter socioeconomic and political echo chambers than reach the audiences who would benefit the most from learning about how issues of race, class, and other historical factors erupted this week. Those tweets are likely to reach fewer people since there are simply fewer people on Twitter than there are on Facebook. There’s also a technical reason why Twitter may be limited as a pedagogical tool.
Journalists and academics have a responsibility to contextualize what’s going on, and if they want to educate during these troubling times, Facebook may be the best bet.
The character limit and small visual space of Twitter are more likely to create what technology researchers refer to as “context collapse.” In the realm of social media, context collapse is a phenomenon in which multiple audiences are all put into a single context. As Robinson Meyer explained in The Atlantic, “when you write… online, what you’re saying can go anywhere, get read by anyone, and suddenly your words are finding audiences you never imagined you were speaking to.” Your social network on Facebook is more likely to be more personal, more diverse along age and political lines, and are less likely to be targeted by trolls or bots. Though it may be counterintuitive (since there are roughly 2 billion more people on Facebook than on Twitter), the audience you would be speaking to is likely to be smaller and more intimate.
Facebook is far from perfect and the reach you can have on any platform is still mostly limited by the size of your social network. But individual scholars and journalists are more likely to speak to people from outside of their metropolitan bubbles or academic villages on Facebook than on Twitter. Your neighbor, mailman, small-town business owners, your third-grade teacher, or folks you went to high school with in the ’90s are more likely to be on Facebook than on Twitter. Also, Facebook users — from eager audiences to debaters to trolls — aren’t as likely to be able to hide behind anonymity. Bringing the conversation to Facebook gives a bigger space to engage people who know us personally, not just professionally. Writing a longer thoughtful post on Facebook may catch a scroller’s eye better than our pithy tweets.
At times, those of us invested in spreading the best obtainable version of the truth feel like Sisyphus rolling a boulder up the hill.
Again, Facebook is not the most ideal platform to have conversations as nuanced as the ones that need to be had right now. Each platform has both affordances and limitations, and there will never be an online substitute for all the audiovisual cues you get from in-person, face-to-face interaction. Journalists have a troubled relationship with Facebook — since the company eats up much of the ad revenue news media used to enjoy, and news organizations have to bend to a platform infrastructure that incentivizes outrage. We could even argue that carrying the conversation to the platform supports its founder, who seems more focused on connecting the world (no matter the social costs) than preserving democracy. But journalists and academics have a responsibility to contextualize what’s going on, and if they want to educate during these troubling times, Facebook may be their best bet.
As both a journalist and an academic, I know what we do is hard. The work done by free press and college campuses often gets under-appreciated and even demonized by those in the highest offices of government. Honest reporting is condemned as “fake news” and verifiable facts are diminished as “liberal bias” if they aren’t convenient to specific political narratives. At times, those of us invested in spreading the best obtainable version of the truth feel like Sisyphus rolling a boulder up the hill, fighting to break through the cacophony of information overload and navigate a seemingly never-ending torrent of disinformation.
Behind the grind of fact-finding, verification, and documentation, the reality is that there will never be a time when things don’t have to be explained. There is no series of articles or any single book that will ameliorate this task. We live in a country where most high school seniors still can’t identify slavery as a central cause for Civil War, so we can imagine how hard it may be to explain to readers overseas the longstanding local and national racial, political, and historical context that came to a head this last week.
But informing the public is the challenge we signed up for. Not everyone has the same information or context to make sense of what is going on right now. We shouldn’t begrudge those who are too frustrated or demoralized to do their work in this current chaos. The pictures, videos, and online discourse have been a vortex on many of our mental and emotional energies. But those using their online platform to inform others in the best way they can, Facebook may be the better of two imperfect options to go to meet folks where they are.