Sunday, August 28, 2011

Social Media and Social Justice

One of the things that came up in my panel at the Rising Tide 6 conference yesterday was the value of social media as a way to counteract the narratives and modes of thinking about news and information that we get through corporate media and other institutionalized sources of information. And I kept pondering how powerful social media has become as a very effective way to push back against these other, more established and controlled forms of information dissemination.

I'd like to take a moment to link this notion of Social Media back to the controversy over at St. Charles Avenue Baptist Church. It seems I have created a bit of a firestorm with my blog posting. I won't hide the fact that I had hoped and intended to stir the pot and, perhaps, upset the cart a bit. But that firestorm has also produced a flurry of comments directed to me (both publicly and privately) that I expected, but really not to the degree to which is has actually taken place. Some of the comments are very supportive of my posting and express agreement with both its tone and its content; but other comments I have received have called me out and expressed disappointment with the tone of my posting.

I think in both instances, my use of the blog (and Facebook as the distribution network for my blog posting) shows the power of social media in dealing with a very particular issue that I believe is a matter not only of justice/injustice, but also an issue that is fraught with a lot of personal baggage. Being sensitive to this personal baggage side of the equation is something to keep more in mind. But what I really want to address is the power of social media in this instance to push back against the unhealthy tendencies of organizational secrecy and group exclusion. Some may ask me why my blog post was necessary. To that, I would answer (1) that it was the only path to have my voice (and that of anyone else who might share the opinions expressed through my posting) considered in a process of deliberation that was closed off and kept hidden from a community that had every right to know about what was going on; and (2) it was the only way that I could see to hold power in check, to demand public accountability by powerholders, and to force transparency and openness in dealing with conflict and division.

The success of this use of Social Media? I know it got the attention of people in positions of power who weren't so interested in hearing from legitimate stakeholders who didn't have the power. I know it has elevated the issue of transparency to another level. I know it had some effect on making marginalized voices relevant to the issue at hand. I know that, even though it won't change the ultimate outcome of this particular issue, it will force the community to operate in a different way. Social media has that kind of power to effect organizational change, and even policy change. Secrecy, backroom deals, and keeping unpleasant things out of the eyes of public scrutiny are not possible in this age of Social Media. I happen to think that this is a good and healthy thing. The fewer people that are kept out of the loop among who have an interest in how certain things go down in organizations to which they belong, the better off that organization will ultimately be. What does it say when a person in a particular community committed to community-decisionmaking writes to say that the first notice he/she is getting of his/her community leader's departure comes from a blog posting? I'll tell you what it says: it says that certain members of this community are disenfranchised and kept out of the loop, that such community members have been marginalized. And that is an issue of social justice. But Social Media, at least, can work towards ending this disenfranchisement, this marginalization. And maybe it will even spur democratic action. So, for these reasons, Social Media is good and can lead to successful outcomes.

The problems with Social Media? It can be insensitive and manipulative, not to mention hurtful, too. Using Social Media on behalf of justice, to the degree that it is effective in giving voice to the marginalized, is certainly much more likely to produce and enhance friction. Let me parallel a mantra floated by Ed Chambers, who himself was borrowing from part of Saul Alinsky's organizing philosophy: where there's friction, there's heat; where there's heat, there's pain; where there's pain, there's change to mitigate the pain. So the use of Social Media is much more likely to cause pain, albeit in the interests of change on behalf of justice. And even though the cause of justice may be worth the pain, that doesn't mean the pain isn't real and that its consequences aren't real.

But, on balance, I tend to value the positives of using Social Media on behalf of issues of justice and to give greater voice to the marginalized.

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