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    A protest in Philadelphia in May 2020 over the killing of George Floyd and systematic racism in US history.
    A misguided but widely spread Facebook poll drumming up conspiracy theories about George Floyd, who was killed by Minneapolis police in May 2020.

    It’s June 2020. The streets host surging protests against systematic racism in the US, and polls show a majority of Americans in favor of the Black Lives Matter movement at the protests’ foundation. However, social media metrics show at least seven of the ten top trending posts on major social media platforms including Facebook and Twitter are highly critical of Black Lives Matter.

    The mismatch seems unusual, except we don’t need to look far back to see other serious misrepresentations of the social world on social networking platforms. Another example began in May 2020. Polls showed a majority of Americans trusting medical experts on coronavirus, agreeing with coronavirus-related restrictions, and in fear of going to work with the virus still spreading. Nonetheless, posts about government overreach and misinformation skeptical of the coronavirus threat were top trends on social media platforms including Twitter, Facebook, and even TikTok. Drummed up and networked through connecting with these posts, in the midst of lockdown people staged “Reopen protests” that are widely covered by the media (including this author).


    These mismatches signal important and often forgotten factors that distort social media’s image of public life in America. Social media are not simply mirrors of society. Social media platforms, content, and algorithms influence societies and societies influence them, in continuous cooperation and struggle.

    Social media metrics and feeds today offer limitless data and indications of what society is expressing today, but the science on new media shows this data is systematically skewed. They may show us only what we want to see, over-represent the ideas of entities who pay more or game the system, under-represent social groundswells developing offline, and leave some people or ideas out altogether. While they may reflect some of what people are talking about, social media insights can be more like funhouse mirrors than clear reflections.

    Cloud Gate mirror sculpture in Chicago
    Social media can distort our understandings of society unless we understand its nature and design.

    While social media buzz does not simply mirror society, insights found on social media are not fully disconnected from real social life either. Understanding the nature and design behind the trends and even individual posts across social networking sites (SNS’s) can have great value in understanding networked communication, including impacts of social networking on social life, and human social influences on SNS’s. One goal of this book is to guide the reader and participant through these complex layers of understanding.

    A relationship of mutual influence

    How are we influenced by social media? How is social media influenced by us? And why have this book title represent humans as social media? The swirl of life immersed in social media begins and ends with ourselves as active human players in it. We produce social media content, we consume it, and we create and influence social media algorithms. Human practices and tendencies feed the systems that produce feeds for us in turn. In the end, our own careful human interpretation of these feeds will produce knowledge about the mutual influence humans and social media have on one another.

    Related Content

    Hear It: How Facebook is undermining ‘Black Lives Matter

    Listen to / read the transcript of this 27-minute episode of the podcast The Daily, “How Facebook is undermining ‘Black Lives Matter‘”. Then consider: What were your experiences around the summer 2020 Black Lives Matter protests, online and offline? Identify examples of data and information sources about them you have been exposed to, and ultimately, how your own knowledge about the protests was formed. Finally, consolidate your knowledge of the summer 2020 Black Lives Matter movement into one “finding,” or statement describing what you know about them.

    Consider It: Online qualitative inquiry on the “Reopen” Protests

    In April 2020, shortly after the threat of coronavirus transmission led to the shutdown of many US businesses, protests ensued. I was invited to use qualitative online research to help people understand the demands of “Reopen” protestors. Read this article and then consider these questions.

    1. How did I perform this online qualitative inquiry? Describe the process in your own words based on what I wrote.
    2. Write a summary of your knowledge today about the “Reopen” protests. Include what you learned from the article as well as other data and information sources and your knowledge and experiences. Consider especially truths you know about the world around these protests at this time that are not included in this article.
    3. This article is information for you, but I wrote it based on my knowledge. Draw a concept map of the data and information that go into your knowledge of the “Reopen” protests today.

    What are the ‘reopen’ protesters really saying?

    Protesters in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, on April 20 call for the governor to lift restrictions meant to help combat the spread of the coronavirus.
    AP Photo/Matt Slocum

    Diana Daly, University of Arizona

    The “anti-lockdown” and #Reopen protests in the U.S. have powerful and secretive backers, but there are real Americans on the streets expressing their opinions.

    As an ethnographer – someone who studies cultural participation – I’m interested in who those Americans are, and why they’re upset.

    I spent the last week in what you might call an online road trip, studying 30 posts of protest footage from events in 15 cities. I found some shared themes, which don’t fit well with popular narratives about these protests.

    Protesters object to handouts, but want work.

    1. Poverty is taboo, but work is ‘essential’

    Despite the economic toll the lockdowns are taking on America’s poor, no protesters put their own poverty on display, such as posting signs asking for help.

    Instead, they held signs with more general language, like “Poverty Kills,” or expressed concerns like the restaurateur in Phoenix, Arizona, who told a passing videographer he was worried about his 121 “suffering, devastated” employees.

    Their messages made clear that they didn’t want to ask for a handout or charity – but they were asking to be allowed to work. Protesters across many states asserted their work – or even all work – was “essential.”

    In one video from an “Operation Gridlock” protest in Lansing, Michigan, where activists planned to block traffic, a protester filmed out the window of his car when he drove past a sign saying “Give me work not money.” The protester himself called out in approval, “Give me work not money, I hear that!

    A young man at an Olympia, Washington, event described work as a source not only of money but identity: “I wanna go back to work! That pride that you feel every day when you go home from work? That’s like nothing that can … be taken.”

    Protest signs in Denver, Colorado, included the plaintive “I want my career back” and the entrepreneurial “Dogs Need Groomers.”

    Outside the Missouri Capitol on April 21, some protesters wore masks – though others didn’t.
    AP Photo/Jeff Roberson

    2. The threat of the virus is serious

    Despite alarming news reports that protesters were ignoring social distancing, many of the protesters observed safety guidelines. Photos showed at least some people wearing masks. A TikTok video recruiting participants for Michigan’s Operation Gridlock encouraged protesters to be safe; drone footage shows that most participants at the state capitol stayed in their cars, away from other people.

    Protesters’ signs didn’t really downplay the threat of the virus, but rather compared it with potential harm from the lockdown. For instance, a sign in Denver was headed “Trading Lives” and featured a scale with virus deaths on one side, with unemployment, suicide and homelessness on the other.

    Protesters in cars are, in general, observing social distancing guidelines.

    3. Anti-science displays are on the fringe

    There were protesters at several rallies who wore anti-vaccination T-shirts and held signs suggesting they don’t trust public health experts and scientists.

    But only one protest was dominated by that theme. At that one, on April 18 in Austin, Texas, hundreds of attendees chanted “Fire Fauci!” referring to Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, who has been a frequent public face of the federal government’s efforts to fight the virus. That was also the rally where right-wing radio host Alex Jones, who runs a conspiracy-theory website, drove around in a truck egging on attendees’ chants through a megaphone.

    At the other events, it appeared protesters had been expecting higher numbers of infections than actually happened. Rather than seeing that as evidence of the success of social distancing, they seemed to interpret this as saying the science was no longer valid. “The models were wrong” was on more than one sign, suggesting protesters had paid attention to the scientific models at first but had come to believe the disease’s seriousness had been exaggerated.

    Idahoans rally to fight the outbreak’s effects in ways they have dealt with more familiar problems.

    4. People want to fight the virus in familiar ways

    Even when protesters acknowledged the threat of the virus, few of them were calling for medical experts to provide the solution. I saw none of the demonstrators calling for more widespread testing, for instance.

    When they did express concern, protest signs coupled it with a desire to fight the contagion. In Boise, Idaho, one sign read “Freedom over Fear.” In Denver, one said “Don’t let your mask be your muzzle.”

    However, the protesters wanted to fight the virus in ways that were more familiar to them and, perhaps, more empowering: In Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, a giant green truck had “Jesus is my vaccine” scrawled on its side.

    Some protesters demanded governments allow people to make their own decisions, and even displayed the pro-choice slogan “My Body My Choice.” Others showed up with guns. One man in Frankfort, Kentucky, blew a shofar, a Jewish religious instrument made from a ram’s horn blown at the start of a battle.

    Armed protesters were among the crowd in Michigan on April 30.
    Jeff Kowalsky/AFP via Getty Images

    5. ‘Tyranny’ depends on who governs, not how

    In many of the events across different states, protesters objected to what they called “tyranny,” and held up the Revolution-era “Don’t Tread On Me” Gadsden flag to symbolize their resistance to government rules. They were not objecting to President Donald Trump’s April 13 declaration that, as president, his “authority is total” over the nation.

    Instead they were objecting to governors’ lockdown rules, which they highlighted as overreaching their power. Many protesters likened the government’s behavior to Nazis, with protesters adding “Heil” before Democratic governors’ names.

    No male governor was targeted as viciously and overtly as female Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer. A widely circulated poster depicted her dressed as Adolf Hitler, giving a Nazi salute beside a swastika. Other demonstrators talked about Whitmer as though she were mothering them instead of governing them, like one who insisted, “We’re not her children!

    Michigan protesters speak out about their concerns.

    6. Race is a factor

    One clearly visible theme in the #Reopen protests is how white the attendees are – but not just in terms of their own race. Their compassion also seemed limited to fellow white people. None that I saw were calling attention to the fact that the coronavirus doesn’t hit all populations equally: Blacks and other racial minorities had less access to high-quality health care before the outbreak, and as a result are less healthy and less able to fight off the virus when it strikes.

    There was overt racism toward the Chinese, too, echoing words of the president and other political leaders, as on the Jefferson City, Missouri, sign that read “Tyranny is spreading faster than the China virus.”

    There’s potential for a wider movement.

    7. Divided and distanced, is it a movement?

    Most protesters did not refer to these protests as a movement. I found just one video offering a vision that they could form one. In that livestream from Operation Gridlock, at one point the videographer shouted, “‘merica!

    Then, his unseen companion replied in a meditative tone about the potential he saw on that road: “Together we’re strong, divided we’re weak. That’s the establishment’s biggest fear, for the people to get together and not be divided. … That’s what they fear the most. Because we have the power.” It was not clear if those people with the power included the much greater number of people across America who were sheltered in place.

    [You need to understand the coronavirus pandemic, and we can help. Read The Conversation’s newsletter.]image

    Diana Daly, Assistant Professor of Information, University of Arizona

    This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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