The flip side of social media

Evil may lurk in 140 characters . . . but so may art. Alum Michelle Boone and Professor Matt Auer describe their own social media experiences.

Image of the twitter bird and a Vulture

Twitter bird and Vulture

Matt Auer is a professor at SPEA, dean of the Hutton Honors College and author of a thought- provoking and sometimes chilling article about social media in PSJ, Policy Studies Journal. Auer contends that those of us who Facebook and Tweet have more to worry about than manipulative marketing and the sale of our personal information. He says governments that don’t share your political values or goals can use the tools of social media to silence protests, track dissidents, and bend public policy. “You don’t have to go into the post-apocalyptic world of The Hunger Games to see this,” Auer says. “Autocratic regimes are using these tools right now. This isn’t paranoid, it’s something we need to think about.”

Auer illustrates the potential for anti-social behavior with two apparently benign examples. Alec Ross is Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s senior advisor for innovation and a Twitter aficionado. Nearly 400,000 people follow his Tweets (micro-blogs limited to 140 characters). On a routine Tuesday, his Tweets range from personal invitations to official State Department business:

Alec Ross @AlecJRoss @gnarlykitty - email me if you want suggestions of places to go and things to do in DC. Enjoy! and thanks for your work at the embassy!

Alec Ross @AlecJRoss 350 organizations from 45 countries trained through @StateDept TechCamps. We’re in Thailand today -> #gov20 #netfreedom

Ross is especially adept at using the sometimes mystifying mechanics of social media, the hashtags and “likes” and links, to broaden his own influence and extend the reach of his communications on behalf of the State Department. Ross and his young colleagues are bringing American diplomacy into the digital age at warp speed. A department that just a few years ago had only a handful of high-level officials fashioning communiques, cables, and fusty press releases now has an iPhone army of communicators. They’re able to instantly reach broad or niche audiences using an array of social media considered open, accessible, democratic, and immune to manipulation. Not so, warns Auer.

Quote from Matt Auer

“Social media’s essence is that it’s a spontaneous, casual way to communicate, but for political actors, it has a very formal purpose,” Auer says. “Behind the emotive elements, the Tweets about coffee and lunch and movies, you’re being seduced.” The State Department’s Ross, Auer notes, will mix a message that appeals to your impulses – like tasting notes from a coffee he just bought – with observations and gentle persuasion about a deadly serious policy meeting he attended while sipping that savory drink. “These are Mad Men for the 21st century. In a friendly, mostly civil society like ours, there may not be much to worry about as long as you keep your eyes open. But go to any number of not fully free countries, use social media, and recognize that you just gave your IP address to the state – that’s more than a little worrisome.

“You don’t have to be an ‘enemy of the state’ to be of potential interest to the state,” Auer contends. “Surveillance is an old standby for insecure regimes, and social media provides new, gift-wrapped ways to do surveillance better.” For this example he points to Foursquare. It is a social media game where users, more than 10 million at last count, use their smart phones to “check in” as they move from location to location during the course of a day. With each check in, participants earn points and titles such as “mayor” for bragging rights. That leads to Tweets and Facebook posts along the lines of “I’m the mayor of Applebee’s on Foursquare.” It is an addictive and popular game, so popular that President Barack Obama is said to have joined last year and had his staff play along as they moved about the country.

The same technology that enables a harmless game of Foursquare can with minor alteration be put to use by rogue nations. “Skilled people without scruples, bad guys, can fairly easily recreate that platform and use the information generated by it for purposes you didn’t sign up for,” Auer says. That’s why political dissidents and organizers of anti-government movements are ditching their laptops and cellphones. “They’re back to meeting in coffee shops and safe houses,” Auer says. In an ironic twist, fear of social media is forcing some people into more traditionally social behavior – face-to-face conversations.

Start thinking about the ramifications of anti-social media and you might be tempted to forsake Facebook and take your birthday party pictures to work to show around. Auer says such a dramatic reaction isn’t necessary as long as you consider some precautions. Every time you disclose data such as your location, politics, opinions, hobbies, or medical conditions, you’re creating something of value to someone who may not share your interests. “You’d be surprised to learn how much information can be collected from you, and it’s not just businesses doing the collecting,” Auer says. “For three years, Google surreptitiously collected ‘payload data’ from its users – stuff like text messages and email addresses. Google stopped doing that and eventually apologized. But in some countries where there is heavy governmental interference in cyberspace, saving payload data is the default setting.” Auer believes few governments are “Big Brother.” He still recommends “do not track” and other privacy features in browsers and social media platforms. “We can’t always know who has joined us on our DSL connection,” Auer cautions.

Tempting and liberating as it is to get information straight from the source, from the Alec Rosses of the social media world, Auer believes in the continuing value of the old fashioned “message controllers,” the gatekeepers of the mainstream media: “Pay attention to the ‘Fourth Estate’ even as you switch over to the ‘Fifth Estate.’ You know where the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal and the television networks are coming from even if you don’t agree with their reporting or editorials. They’re corporate and political biases are well-known. Take some comfort in that. In contrast, some bloggers and so-called e-journalists are operating by, at best, an emerging and unstable set of norms. There are no barriers to entry for the unaccountable.”

Even in something as casual and relaxing as Facebook and YouTube, knowledge is power and Auer believes it’s up to us to be smart about what we’re doing. “Widespread mastery of the technologies themselves is necessary to ensure that social media remain squarely in the overarching endeavor of promoting human dignity for all,” he writes in Policy Studies Journal. “Perhaps there is hope in that so many citizens of the planet are already skillful users of social media.”

Michelle Boone (MPA’98) is by any definition a skillful user of social media. She is the newly appointed Cultural Affairs and Special Events Commissioner for the City of Chicago and earned her master’s in nonprofit management at SPEA. She is a regular presence on Twitter expressing her own views under the name @ArtsCrusader. The programmers in her office use social media to spread the word about concerts, festivals, school programs, and art exhibits. “We deliver 2,000 programs, events, and services every year and we have found social media is an effective tool to communicate about those,” Boone says.

Quote from Michelle Boone

It’s also a tool that needs to be used with precision. The Facebook page for the Cultural Affairs and Special Events office ( ChicagoCulturalCenter) features longer stories about a variety of arts events. For example, there’s a description of “Morbid Curiosity,” an ambitious exhibit of historic items and artwork from a Chicago collector all on the theme of death. Facebook encourages a conversation and one has begun involving several exhibit-goers. Boone’s office uses Twitter and its maximum of 140 characters to tout farm markets, street fairs, and the like. But true to the term “social,” there is also a sprinkling of Chicago-style tidbits. The @ChicagoDCASE feed recently featured a note about the popular Garrett Popcorn Shops giving away free samples to mark a special occasion.

“To maintain credibility you really have to know which social media tool is most appropriate for the work you’re trying to promote,” Boone says. “You can’t be effective without really understanding who is the audience and what you’re trying to do.”

The benefits of Boone’s work on the Web extend to tens of thousands of Chicagoans who will never go to a concert or have any curiosity about all things morbid. In 1986, long before the dawn of status updates, Chicago developed a cultural affairs plan. Boone says it required 300 community meetings over 18 months to assemble the information needed to map out a plan. Now Chicago is creating a new plan and the process is far faster and less costly. “We’re only doing about 40 meetings over a more condensed time frame,” she says. “We hope to get the same amount of community input as we did in 1986 by using social media. The planning process has its own Web page, Twitter handle and Facebook page and we’re using all of them to find out what people in Chicago want for the new Cultural Plan. As a result, the process is far more efficient and we’re saving thousands of dollars by not having to staff and set up all of those meetings.”

As for her own social media habits, Boone says she’s found that she can save hours of digging through daily and weekly newspapers for arts information. “What social media allows is for the news to find me,” she says. “I don’t have to go out and find it, the information I want will come to me if I set up the right filters.” Boone says she’s learned to look behind the slick forms of communication to get a feel for the voices. “Authenticity is what I look for in public officials,” she says. “You can tell when someone is authentic and credible. And you can tell when it’s just marketing.”