We shouldn't want government to solve evil through social media censorship

We shouldn't want government to solve evil through social media censorship
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We shouldn’t want or need government to solve evil through social media censorship. 

Facing terrible tragedies, the government of Sri Lanka imposed a social media blackout earlier this week. Pundits worldwide trumpeted the decision. The New York Times argued that such an “extraordinary” step reflects concerns about the capacity of “American-owned networks to spin violence.” A Canadian writer on technology called for “the western world to butt out.”


Various members of Congress — and even Facebook’s Mark ZuckerbergMark Elliot ZuckerbergHillicon Valley: Biden administration sanctions Russia for SolarWinds hack, election interference Instagram sparks new concerns over 'kidfluencer' culture Mark Zuckerberg, meet Jean-Jacques Rousseau? MORE — are renewing their calls for the regulation of social media. But this is, at best, unhelpful. 

We shouldn’t want or need government or tech giants to solve evil through censorship. Worse, we are missing a great opportunity. Social media can be harnessed in favor of constructive conversation about the root causes of religiously inspired violence, spurring empathy and change.

Government officials calling for regulation do not seem to grasp that social media is potentially powerful not only because of its vast reach, but because it rewards good storytelling. For instance, consider the success of GoFundMe. Since its 2010 launch, GoFundMe has used the power of Facebook and other social media networks to raise over $5 Billion from more than 50 million donors around the world.

Last year, the platform raised tens of millions of dollars for its top three campaigns alone. GoFundMe’s beneficiaries even include religious minorities: More than $2 million has been raised by the platform’s “Houses for Rohingya Refugees” campaign.

GoFundMe's success can be partly attributed to two basic principles of effective communications. First, the platform is fueled by good stories, not donor incentives. Its campaigns use what social psychologist Jonathan Haidt explains in his seminal book, The Righteous Mind, “The human mind is a story processor, not a logic processor.” 

The second principle is what Haidt calls elevation. In studies Haidt conducted, he concludes that each of us can be moved to action by witnessing a stranger helping another stranger or by seeing similar heroic actions. Those feelings can inspire us to change our own behavior. Elevation, Haidt says, can be contagious. Therefore, he concludes, efforts to publicize acts that elevate such as altruism can have widespread network-based results. 

There is already evidence that effective use of social media can change minds. Pew reports that 20 percent of social media users say they have modified their stance on a social or political issue because of material they saw on social media. In other words, social media can drive dialogue and great debate. It is not a mere noise machine.

Effective use of social media is vital, particularly when it comes to countering religiously-inspired violence. After all, while the world is generally quite religious (more than eight-in-ten people worldwide identify with a religious group), there has been a global rise in religious restrictions and, as evidenced not only in Sri Lanka, but recently in Christchurch and in Pittsburgh, hatred of particular religions can spur deadly violence. 

And here, we Americans have a terrific opportunity. The robust religious freedom protections we enjoy in this country have fostered the conditions and climate — unmatched by many other countries — for U.S. faith-based organizations to flourish, meeting countless needs, including job creation, at home and abroad. In the United States alone, faith-based groups contribute a more significant chunk of the country's $16 trillion GDP than many giant corporations. Internationally, U.S. faith-based NGOs send billions in grant money outside the U.S. But the great work that religion motivates has not translated to positive conversation around the world.

In 2018, with less than 5 percent of the world’s population, the U.S. was responsible for nearly 70 percent of the world’s Twitter conversation about religious freedom. And while the State Department has been rightly praised for its inaugural Ministerial to Advance International Religious Freedom last summer with a follow up this coming summer, only 33 percent of social media posts about that event came from outside the U.S. Americans may dominate the religious freedom conversation, but we are not good at telling the stories that elevate or inspire change on a global level. 

The answer to hate-filled online posts that might incite violence is not to shut down social media altogether or to allow governments to regulate content. The answer is to find and elevate good narratives.

Kristina Arriaga is founder and president of BuzzHive Consulting. She also serves as vice chair at the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom. The views expressed are her own. Matt Salisbury is a founding partner of Pesch Digital, a communications firm.