President’s Column: Social Media: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

June Wilson

June Wilson

June Wilson, PhD

Over the past weeks we have all witnessed the good, the bad, and the ugly of social media leaving many to ponder the role social media has in our lives.

The Good

On February 14, 2018 a gunman with an AR-15 semi-assault rifle entered Marjory Stoneman Douglas (MSD) high school and in 6 minutes and 20 seconds killed 17 individuals. Among those killed, 14 were 14- to 18-year-old children, all with exciting futures ahead of them; 3 were teachers, coaches, and staff who died protecting the children. An additional 17 individuals were injured, with their lives changed forever.

Word of the shooting quickly spread internationally. Survivors immediately took to Twitter, Facebook, and other social media sites to let their parents and other loved ones know they were safe.  Demitri Hoth, a 17-year-old senior, stated: “During the shooting, having a phone was a double-edged sword. You had access to information, what was happening in real time in terms of where the shooter was, if they had apprehended them or not ” (as cited by Ohlheiser & Epstein, 2018).

Teen leaders and activists quickly emerged from the horrors of the shooting. Survivors took to social media to support one another and for political activism—to educate others about gun laws and to organize national school walkouts. The #NeverAgain movement emerged shortly after the shooting and students quickly began their quest for safer schools.  The March for Our Lives rally, initially organized via social media, culminated in an inspiring student-led rally where survivors and supporters spoke to over 800,000 people in Washington, DC, and reached a worldwide audience via other media. There were an additional 800 independent student-led global sibling marches for promoting gun safety, education, and awareness (

Organizers of the March for Our Lives stated they had just begun.  They continue to keep their message alive through social media using the media effectively to promote social change.  For example, a student organizer, who stated she did not have a Twitter account prior to the shooting, now has over 1.5 million followers.  A review of her account shows continued activism with the goal of lowering gun violence.  Social media have given these students a platform to actively spread their messages; however, it has not been without consequences.

The Bad

Two of the most outspoken activists to emerge from MSD are Emma Gonzalez and David Hogg. Unfortunately, these well-spoken, well-intentioned intelligent teens and some of their fellow classmates have been victims of cyberbullying and conspiracy theories by some who oppose any kind of firearms regulation.

After the March for Our Lives rally, the sitting congressman Rep. Steve King took to Facebook to ridicule Emma Gonzalez, in part, for her Cuban background.  Others on social media quickly fired back at Rep. King, but instead of rendering an apology he defiantly returned fire to incite further ridicule.  A congressional candidate, who was running unopposed, stated Emma was a “skinhead lesbian.”  Still others posted doctored pictures of her tearing the constitution in half (Schmidt, 2018).

One conspiracy theory accused David Hogg of being a spy for the CIA or FBI, planted to boost support for gun control and disarmament. Recently, a picture of David and his sister sitting behind a CNN desk emerged on the Internet; this photograph was taken when they were on a CNN VIP tour on their family vacation.  Some took advantage of this picture to infer that David’s mother is an executive at CNN.  Other theories have propagated that David is not a high school student at MSD and used pictures of others with the name David Hogg to support their claim, despite the fact the pictures have no resemblance to David (Edevane, 2018).

When we want something to be true we search for evidence that supports our preconceived ideas. Confirmation bias allows us to interpret information that confirms our beliefs. When that information is found, we stop looking.  Brittany Spears attacked an SUV with an umbrella years ago, shortly after she shaved her head during an apparent manic episode.  These pictures have now resurfaced on Twitter with the comments that Emma Gonzalez attacked a Second Amendment supporter’s truck after the March for Our Lives rally.  Some who believed that this is a picture of Emma were outraged, posting comments on Twitter.  Survivors of MSD, allegedly funded by Georg Soros, were called “Satan” and accused of destroying and dividing our country (Edevane, 2018). Such ad hominem corrosive attacks can undermine our society by undercutting our sense of community and civility.  To counter blind acceptance of media stories, some societies are educating their media consumers to be critical consumers of information.  We as a society are in desperate need of media literacy training, which should be part of school curricula.  The lack of media literacy could be very damaging to our institutions which depend upon an enlightened citizenry.

The Ugly

A story that recently dominated the mainstream and social media is the widespread invasion of privacy by the political data firm Cambridge Analytica. A researcher at Cambridge University developed an app called This is Your Digital Life and offered to pay Facebook users to take a personality test based on the Big Five.  Participants agreed to share their personal Facebook data and unwittingly the personal data of their Facebook friends.  With approximately 270,000 people participating, the company extracted data of 50-87 million Facebook users.

Data collected by Cambridge Analytica included these personality traits: openness to new experiences, conscientiousness, extroversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism. In addition, the company gathered data on Facebook users’ “likes,” and used the data to target audiences with customized digital ads (Granville, 2018). Thus, for example, those who scored high on neuroticism and liked guns were targeted with a digital ad stating that the political opponent will take away your gun.

In response to the Cambridge Analytica misuse of personal information, Mark Zuckerberg provided two days of testimony on Capitol Hill. He promised that Facebook users will be notified if their data were compromised; he also stated he is open to Internet regulation although the government must be “careful” about what regulations are put in place.  With many unanswered questions, the Cambridge Analytica story is still ongoing; but are there ways we can educate ourselves now?

Where Do We Go From Here?

As media consumers and media psychologists we should be aware of the impact social media can have on our behaviors. The ease with which conspiracy theories start and spread through the underbelly of social media must be thoroughly studied.  Kids can survive a school shooting, but then be re-traumatized on social media.

Our data are not safe. The Facebook-Cambridge Analytica scandal provides the opportunity to address the importance of media literacy and what it is like to be an informed social media consumer. We have had a wake up call.  It might be a good time to disengage from social media and reevaluate the role they have in our lives. Engage with life away from the iPhone or other devices.

We must examine how we could use social media effectively for organizational matters such as in Division 46. I will be starting a social media committee whereby we can use this platform for the “good.”  This committee will examine our social media presence and manage our social media content.  We will develop social media practices and policies in accordance with APA specific to Division 46.  This platform can be used more effectively to promote and disseminate information and research related to media psychology and technology. We must  control our own data both personally and professionally.

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