The fourth Dialogue and Action in the Age of Divides panel discussion was held on April 2, with the intention of discussing social media’s role in influencing modern discourse.  Moderated by Deb K. Roy, the Professor of Media Arts and Sciences and Director of Center for Constructive Communication at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, sets the foundation of the conversation by denoting ‘constructive dialogue.’ “Those forms of communication … foster an authentic and accurate understanding of others,” Roy said. “We can contrast that with the various forms of communication that might amplify, inaccurate and overly simplify stereotypes of others.” After listing statistics related to the political divides in the country and clarifying the value of constructive dialogue with regards to strengthening communities and institutions, the panelists began to chime in. 

To preface the conversation, Brooke Foucault Welles, the Associate Dean of Research and Professor of Communication Studies at Northeastern University, clarified the difference between dialogue and discourse. She defined ‘dialogue’ as “a two-way cooperative conversation designed to build understanding within the kind of context of relationships” and described  ‘discourse’ as something that  “potentially designed to build understanding, but is generally understood to be more one way … so it's the kind of broadcasting or spreading of information without necessarily the expectation of the reciprocity or the conversation between.” 

To connect these definitions to the topic of social media, Welles makes the assertion that social media is fairly one-sided and that it involves much more discourse than discussion. As Welles noted, from a computational social science point of view, it seems that there may be fewer discussions taking place, but she also recognizes that much of the dialogue takes place offline or in private spaces. She introduced the idea that with social media, “there is a kind of amplification effect or an algorithm effect around sensational topics which can be both good or bad.” While explaining, Welles mentions that these sensational stories can be misleading, but at the same time, the algorithm effect can help to bring awareness to certain events such as with Michael Brown’s murder in Ferguson Missouri.

Nick Seaver, the Assistant Professor of Anthropology and Director of Science, Technology and Society Program at Tufts University, added his perspective on the algorithm effect with regards to sensational topics. He warned that one should be “wary of pointing to the algorithm as the reason for that there is sensational efforts to grasp at things sensationally.” He further clarifies that the intention is not to claim stories that include  elements of pathos are suspect because of their subject matter; rather, individuals who have intense feelings about certain topics should be included in conversations and granted the opportunity to voice their thoughts, allowing them to be amplified and heard. According to Seaver, the algorithm effect shouldn’t be blamed for the amplification effect but rather conversations should be around how we can include and hear from more people of marginalized groups. 

One of the panelists, Jonathan Corpus Ong, The Associate Professor of Global Digital Media and Director of the Global Technology for Social Justice Lab at University of Massachusetts Amherst  contributed their perspective regarding having safe spaces for minority groups. He stated that “it is important to hold those safe spaces because there is a sense of trust that people have your back and the people who have curated such a safe space know the background of the participants, know where they are coming from, and the risk that they are taking of being present there.” 

Ong references the "South To South Knowledge Exchange Series" where activists, journalists, researchers and experts come together with the purpose of  “centering global south experiences and identities to innovate” and to get rid of the idea of social media brainwashing. This series is introduced as an example of constructive dialogue being effective but Ong also explains the contrary, elaborating on the risks marginalized groups take to be in those spaces since they can be exhausting. “For such events we are called in and expected to show up and represent our community,” Ong said. “It often seems like people are curious about us for our suffering and our trauma that we are asked to narrate.”  Conversations in these safe spaces are less about seeking out solutions, causing  individuals to feel as though they are “case studies for other people to think through.” This approach dehumanizes people, and to a certain extent, social media exhibits similar challenges by limiting the voices of marginalized groups. Ong stated, “what sells on social media are the topics that have the loudest voices and extreme positions rather than the new voices/positions.” The detrimental effect of social media is that it makes space for the amplification of extreme positions which in turn overshadows the perspectives and voices of marginalized groups.

Another challenge that is exhibited with social media is that young people are beginning to develop a fear of cancel culture, causing them to not want to “put themselves out there.” Linda Charmaraman, the Senior Research Scientist at Wellesley Centers for Women, explains that young people “are almost afraid to be who they are and open up that dialogue that might be difficult.” Charmaraman says that their comments can be taken out of context and because one’s digital footprint lasts forever, the young users are more inclined to stay quiet rather than risk their words being misconstrued. The discussion highlights the negative impacts of social media with regards to its effect on a person’s mental health.

In adding to the discussion, Welles acknowledges these impacts. She  explains that “it is a real shame when we tell young people not to use social media for their mental health or because it is dangerous.” Dangerous, because it depoliticized the young people, according to Welles. Especially in recent years, Welles stated that “social movements in the U.S. and around the world have been motivated and led by young people … so I do worry that there is a complicating factor in there that we are not talking about the politics or the meaning of when we say push the young people out of these spaces.”'

The panelists left the audience with various takeaways. Welles encourages viewers to “think about dialogue beyond the person- to-person or the dyad and think about dialogue as something that happens within and between groups, not all of whom show up every single time.” By encouraging constructive discussions rather than discourse, an inclusive environment can be created where social media positively impacts all members of society.