Joseph B. Walther is a Rebooting Social Media (RSM) Visiting Scholar for 2023-2024. He holds the Bertelsen Presidential Chair in Technology and Society and is a Distinguished Professor of Communication at the University of California, Santa Barbara. He is a pioneering researcher in interpersonal and intergroup dynamics in mediated interaction, in personal relationships, groups, and inter-ethnic conflict. His Institute projects are focusing on new approaches to understanding social and technological factors that facilitate the generation and propagation of hate messaging in social media.
As someone who holds the Bertelsen Presidential Chair in Technology and Society, can you briefly describe the intersection of these two domains, and why this combination is so crucial for our time?
My own work has tended to focus on the more micro-level aspects of how people relate to each other online, through internet communication channels, social media, and so forth. Communication technology significantly influences how we present ourselves, how we perceive others, and how we behave differently than we do in other interpersonal and social settings. But this is the seed that grows very strongly and broadly since all of society is based on the social interactions we have, extending out into institutions and other dimensions. Of course, there are many entry points into the question of technology and society. My perspective rose from the interpersonal upward.
Mr. Bertelsen, who's a benefactor of our university, tends to look at things from a more macrosocial perspective. He sees how technology has changed with an unexpected velocity that’s overwhelmed our legal structures and institutions. The companies and the billionaires technology created have had outsized and often perverse impacts on political, economic, and social life. Our perspectives converge in the recognition that companies design their platforms in ways that exploit and affect behavior and interpersonal interactions. I tend to start from the micro end and Mr. Bertelsen starts at the macro. I admire him and I've enjoyed our conversations where we go from one end to the other.
Yes, that’s a topic that we've discussed extensively at the Institute for Rebooting Social Media. We consider two major entry points to the conversation: a bottom-up approach driven by interpersonal relations and a top-down approach steered by legislation. The institute aims to pursue both methods. We're uncertain which one will prevail or how both strategies will eventually unfold. Perhaps it will even result in an interpersonal dialogue between both ends, with legislative discourse and societal conversations mirroring and influencing each other.
I think that no one understands this concept of mutual directionality better than Mark Zuckerberg. He has always been highly attuned to the fact that people enjoy observing each other's faces and making decisions about them, and how this behavior scales up into social patterns that are very attractive to people’s basic social instincts. He likes to talk about how this extends to the ability to develop community. And, of course, he's become very well-aware of the policy regulations and legislation that affects what he is able to do. But I don't think he's the only one; anybody who’s gotten rich through technology probably has the perspective of being able to see the reverberations that go out in both directions.
Since your work has often delved into the realm of interpersonal and intergroup dynamics in mediated interaction, could you elaborate a little more on how you think digital technologies are reshaping the way we communicate, perceive others, and perceive ourselves?
For a long time, I've been looking at how people avail themselves of what are now called the affordances of communication technology and social media. When I got started, there was almost universal consensus that without nonverbal cues and real-time interaction—because we sent typed-out messages to one another—there would be a dearth of interpersonal relations, no warmth, no character, and so forth. But my studies over the years have looked at how people actually find these affordances and use them to their relational advantage.
I think my work helped establish very early on that when you don't have nonverbal cues and you're not operating in real-time interaction, you really are afforded all kinds of opportunities to adjust your messages, adjust your self-presentation, to not only achieve relatively normal interpersonal relations but to even exploit the media and to develop what can be called hyperpersonal interactions. So, impression formation, impression management, and relationships that are actually more extreme and more favorable than what is possible to do in normal face-to-face interaction.
Returning to your question, I think what Mr. Zuckerberg appreciated was how people want to use technologies to satisfy these interpersonal cravings we have. What does someone look like, is the first impression we make. If we can't hear someone's voice, we want to see what they look like, rightly or wrongly. As far as my recollection of history is correct, Zuckerberg expected that when we add the ability to share video and pictures, and when we all have real usernames, people would behave themselves. People would have normal relations and good, honest connections with one another.
What he didn't anticipate is that we use Facebook and other media, to some extent, to pose for one another. Facebook quickly became one of many platforms where we were able to groom ourselves, where we were able to engage in what some call mild deception and others would call this normal, Goffman-esque impression management.
But as we all know, it's also turned into spaces, for many people, where they focus on partial information, where they relate to each other on the basis of common themes—motherhood, politics, race, etc.
So, it's this ability of technology to perhaps exaggerate, even distort, intentionally magnifying who we want to be and how we wish to present ourselves that has always caught my attention.
Your research projects have focused on understanding social and technological factors that facilitate hate messaging propagation in social media. Could you talk more about this?
Where I’ve gone with the research recently, is to ask myself, “Do people use those affordances, those capabilities, to channel their social desires into the production of conventionally anti-social behaviors?” In other words, are the people in a closed Facebook group of anti-Black racists generating messages with the intention to harm or insult Black people? If they are in a closed Facebook group, they might not be producing messages with which to harm or insult black people. They perhaps are doing it to help enhance the relationships that they carry on with each other, to amuse one another, to build relational solidarity, to make friends and to provide positive reinforcement for generating what they would deem clever insults, or to reward one another for escalating racist self-presentations in the company of others who appreciate that type of character.
Throughout my career, I've explored how people use the affordances of online communication and social media to have more rewarding interactions and better relationships with other people. And so the latest work that I hope to contribute to the'Rebooting Social Media project revolves around the question: Are people still doing that, even in the production of the most vile behavior that most of us could imagine? Are they doing it for gratification rather than for aggression?
Indeed, there's no question that there are very repulsive attacks on individuals. Many people, like Prof. Alice Marwick and others, have written about “networked harassment,” where some instigator enlists a large group of people to send very directed hate messages—threatening messages to specific individuals—it could be by email, it could be in a social media system. We know that there are attacks on victims that are meant to be just that. But we also know that there are hate messages and displays of bigotry and racism that are shared in these very closed groups.
So the question becomes: is this two different things, or is there a common denominator? There is some research that has found that often, when these network harassment raids are planned and enacted, those who participate in them report back to the originating location, saying, "Here's the hurtful thing that I said," and they boast about the awfulness to the other perpetrators about what they did. This represents a real cross-cutting of these two dimensions of online hate, doesn't it? The kind of online hate that's clearly an attack on an individual, which I think most people assume is destructive. Yet when there's this feedback, and when there's this opportunity to report back and boast about it, to discuss what one did in what was originally a private message, then the question becomes very confusing. What was this done for, for what purpose?
Many people would say—and I would suggest myself—that this tends to minimize the real hurt and the damage that's done to real victims, to entertain the possibility that they have been collateral damage, that one of the primary motivations for these hate attacks is to impress the other haters. This does not do credit to the amount of pain that people feel and the endangerment to their life sometimes.
What do you think is your greatest area of concern that is facing digital-mediated social media?
The greatest danger does not originate in social media itself; I think. Society is at a very dangerous point, and I believe social media helps to magnify that. We've got problems, and among those problems are the hatred, polarization, and the enjoyment of what is called deception and character assassination. Social media didn't invent these issues. A revered colleague of mine, an expert on the Lincoln-Douglas presidential debate, likes to say, "If you think things are bad now...”.
…read about the Lincoln-Douglas era.
Apparently it was harsh. I have a current colleague, who is a political scientist, and he was asked the question, "Do you think the United States is more polarized than at any point in its history?" He said, "Well, actually, we did have a civil war at one point." So, it's easy to lose track of that. But I think we get closer and closer to the precipice of violence and intolerance at a level we have not seen for some time. I think it's dangerously close. And I believe social media acts as the megaphone for those voices. So, that's the worst thing about social media - that's what I fear about it. Social media is not the problem. It's just the amplifier of the problem.
Since you're going to be a visiting scholar for 'Rebooting Social Media' at Berkman Klein at Harvard, what are your goals in this position?
I might share with you my, well, dirty little secret. Although I've been fortunate enough to be accepted as a visiting scholar, my true purpose, my true goal, is to come as a visiting student. I want to see how much I can learn and to see if I'm able to seduce the interest of any potential collaborators with these ideas. They might have much better ideas than I and stronger abilities in terms of investigating them.
Benjamin Villa is an Architect with a minor in Economics and a Master in Design Engineering from Harvard. Benjamin’s focus is in reconciling the affordances of digital and physical public spaces. He has worked with communities in diverse contexts at MIT's Environmental Solutions Initiative, and the Mayor's Office of Hartford and Bogotá. During the summer of 2023, Benjamin interned with the Institute for Rebooting Social Media at the Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society.