The importance of social media literacy
Everyone loves hooded figures on the internet. So mysterious!
Last weekend the Weekly Alibi made a very conscious decision not to report a protest opposed to Operation Legend’s dispatch of federal agents to Albuquerque. We made the decision, after much deliberation, not to address this event based on the evidence (or more precisely the lack of evidence) we had about the purpose, origins, organizational affiliation and details of the protest. Since then, I’ve pondered that decision and the instincts that led us all to make it. These instincts have everything to do with social media literacy, and perhaps the sense of self-preservation that journalists learn after a few years in the industry.
The flyer for the event was very simple. There was a date, time, place and a very superficial slogan with one purpose: “Protecting NM residents and the rights of the 1st Amendment.”
On the surface, it covers all the bases, and there is certainly nothing wrong with trying to protect NM residents and their First Amendment rights. But there were a couple of red flags surrounding this event flyer and the Facebook page we first came across it:
• The group was only founded on July 3rd – not much history – and had started with the group name “BLACK LIVES MATTER NEW MEXICO”. They eventually changed their name on July 23, just days before the scheduled event.
• None of the BLM organizers that we know or have met were involved in the event or this group.
• In the days leading up to the event, other local Black Lives Matter organizations publicly distanced themselves from the event on social media.
• Very few details were given about the event. No specific demands were made, who, if any, would speak or lead the march, nor what roles protesters should play in relation to frontline protesters, support, or street medics.
• Shortly after the event, this group went private on Facebook and prevented people who were not already members of the group from seeing their posts.
It is entirely possible that whoever organized the event had the best of intentions and really wanted to protest against the federal agencies occupying our city. Maybe it was young or inexperienced organizers who meant well but didn’t get the details right. That said, we are currently living in the strangest timeline where people can be punished or imprisoned for the good intentions of others – so, unfortunately, good intentions are not enough.
However, it is also possible that the organizers of this event acted in bad faith. A rumor brought up by a member of our staff said the event was a phishing front – an attempt to gather personal information from protesters and people who sympathize with the Black Lives Matter movement.
That there are no specific demands related to the protest has made us most suspicious – despite what many may believe about protests and the people who attend, these organized events usually have several very specific demands. For example, in a Red Nation publication last week on a protest they held on Friday, they listed as one of their multiple demands: “We demand an immediate withdrawal of all federal agents from Albuquerque and every city where they have been deployed.” . Whatever you think of the political agenda they represent, it is an undeniably specific and actionable demand. In comparison, Protect NM Residents and 1st Amendment Rights is vague and does not include any actual proposed changes.
Well, we certainly do not want to play “good protester, bad protester” here or guard a growing and necessary social movement. And we don’t want to make anyone feel guilty for trying to make positive change. But we’d like to bring some lessons to read between the lines on these social media posts and pages so everyone can stay safe and know what they’re signing up for.
People’s lives can be immensely affected by what is shared on social media, as we saw here recently as the New Mexico Civil Guard, the local right wing militia that represents itself as armed peacekeeping, the home addresses of two members published by The Red Nation last week on their public Facebook page. When this information is shared online, especially with such an ideologically extreme group as the NMCG, it is done with the aim of intimidating, harassing and possibly hurting the people involved.
So we have to be careful what we share with whom.
So how do you tell the difference between a real member of the movement and a bad actor? While there aren’t any hard and fast rules, here are some that we’ve found are good litmus tests for stamping out the bad guys. When reviewing a profile or group page on Facebook or any other social media site, ask yourself:
1. The most obvious question: if this is someone’s profile, does they have photos of themselves? If so, do all of the photos actually seem to be the same person? Or do they look like stock photos? No photos or stock photos likely mean it is a fake identity.
2. Does the page or profile only seem to post things that arouse hatred and spite from their followers? Is there a clear tendency to “against it” instead of “for it we are”? This could be someone trying to get protesters to look bad on the internet or to do something even more stupid.
3. Are your posts mostly reposted and / or uncredited material from elsewhere? Do they have no or very few original posts that give you a glimpse of the person behind the page? This is the hallmark of someone – probably with a fake identity – who doesn’t get involved in political discourse but wants to make it look like it does.
4. When a group publishes its organizers or even its members, is there anyone on that list you know? If you don’t, then investigate these people’s profiles – do they seem legitimate? Never go to a protest rally alone or with people you do not know personally. Seriously.
5. Are you selling something? Do you literally have products to buy on your site? If so, selling this product is likely their main motivation and not a political or ideological goal.
However, the best rule of all is to use your instincts. If a person, group, or page appears fake, or misrepresents its purpose, it is likely.
With the Weekly Alibi, we adhere to journalistic standards, which include that we do not report something if we do not have all the relevant information about it. These standards also imply that potential bad actors and people who do not have the best interests of the Albuquerque people in mind will not be allowed airtime.
With social media making it easier than ever to be a “publisher” of one kind or another, we should all have similar standards about the information or misinformation we bring into the world. Did you find a four-slide graphic on Instagram that succinctly communicates a point that appeals to you that you would like to share with others? That’s great! But where did the original poster get their information from? What does the rest of your account look like? Have you said anything else that seems extremist or like trolling?
You may share bad information to mislead people or purposely cause discord among people with the same political views. Unfortunately, these tactics often work – the arguments that are talked about in political or social movements are often the result of a poor actor bringing in divisive and redundant points to get people to argue or split the group into factions. Our best defense against these tactics is to recognize them when we see them and not get involved.
To learn more about “Knowing the Tactics”, we recommend watching a series called “The Alt-Right Playbook” on YouTube. It will help you not only spot bad actors, but also know which political arguments are actually worth it and how to make them. It will also make you grind your teeth at times, but we promise it’s worth it.
As always, stay safe at the wild frontier of the Internet and decide for yourself who is trustworthy and who is not.