How are trolling, trust and language education linked? What have Shakespeare, Dickens and French classes got to do with GDPR or Trump’s tweets? In part two of our discussion, Dr Yin Yin Lu and I talk about the dark side of communicating on social media, whether we can trust current regulation processes (such as GDPR), and how language education is the key to feeling less manipulated and more in control of the way we consume and create our experience of talking to each other online.
In this episode of The Language Revolution podcast, we begin by looking at the regulation of our online communications. Early social media platforms did not expect to become the place where humans create and consume the most content. They are now just catching up with the fact that the vast majority of online human communication takes place on social media.
Having taken a hands-off approach at first, platforms such as Facebook are now taking more responsibility for regulating content. However, since online communication is a socio-technical phenomenon (as we discussed in episode 17), it is fairly complex and requires a range of theoretical and technical skills. Do the regulators have those skills? Or are the most up-to-date experts actually all working for the social platforms themselves?
It’s not pretty, but we cannot ignore the darker side of spending so much time communicating online. Trolling has become a tangible problem that has ramifications in real life as well as online. It can ruin people’s lives. Troll and bot networks, Yin explains, may have an economic incentive to behave very differently online to how they’d behave IRL. My own experience of being trolled after questioning a company on its sustainability policy is nothing compared to Lauren Batchelder, who questioned Trump’s attitude to women at a rally. She received sustained online abuse (explored in Trump in Tweets on BBC3).
Just look at Microsoft’s TayBot experiment to see how quickly an AI bot, set up as a teenage girl and targeted at 18-24 year olds on Twitter, descended into behaving like a racist, fascist, feminist-bashing troll. It had to be taken down within 24 hours of launching as it learned how to be a troll from conversations with followers. What is it that makes humans behave so differently online to how they would behave in a room full of people?
Then there’s the question of ‘authenticity’ online. I have studied this as a business owner because I want my brand, Babel Babies, to come across as a credible and genuinely good choice for consumers interested in exploring languages with their young children. It matters to me that people know I am a real person with a human mission to improve language education and not a huge corporation incentivised by capitalism. This kind of marketing authenticity is really interesting to look at in more detail. Social networks are, after all, where real people have conversations and so if I can have real conversations with potential customers, that is the first step in digital marketing for a small business. It’s also what Trump does, by tweeting himself and being ‘authentic’.
Social media was leveraged during the Brexit campaign and in elections our data is used to inform how parties communicate their message to win our votes. Have politics and digital marketing become the same thing? Are we just pawns in a giant game of capitalism?
Education is the answer
Rather than let ourselves be victims to data brokerage and trolls, we can educate ourselves about how ‘talking’ works online. We can look at who is speaking, what their incentive is, and what they know about us. We can look at the context of when and where they are speaking to us. Sound familiar? That’s because we do a lot of this in English literature and English language classes. There’s a case for examining ‘classic’ tweets and Reddit threads alongside the classics of English literature like Shakespeare or Dickens. The sociology of language and literature is a great place to start learning the language of the internet age. Learning new languages brings new perspectives too, and through understanding language(s) we can create and consume in a more intelligent way.
We can teach ourselves and our students how to question things critically. Trolling might seem powerful but, ultimately, language is power. And we think the earlier we start this language revolution, the better!