Structures and silencing on social media: When calls to civility act as censors

I shared in an earlier post my letter to the Chancellor of the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign, requesting her to respect the communicative and academic freedom of Professor Steven Salaita.

Professor Salaita, who had resigned from his job at Virginia Tech University to accept an offer at the University of Illinois, Urbana Champaign, was "de-hired" from the University. This decision was apparently prompted by tweets posted  by Professor Sailata criticizing the Israeli attack on Gaza. The UIUC decision to de-hire Professor Salaita came in the backdrop of social media conversations that suggested that Profesor Salaita had crossed the line of civility in his criticism of Israel.

So what exactly is this line of civility that defines the range of possible conversations on social media?

What are the communicative expectations of interaction on social media? When writing on Facebook, how are we expected to voice our opinions, thoughts, and feelings? What are the expectations when we tweet what we are thinking or feeling? What are the communicative expectations when I am writing this blog? And what are the roles of academics as public intellectuals in the social media sphere? More importantly, where does the work of an academic begin and where does it end? Are social media posts reflections of our public academic identities or are they reflections of our private thoughts (apparently non-academic, once we move out of the realm of the journal articles and books in which we publish our work).

The norms of conversational politeness are dynamic and continually evolving in social media. To subject social media to the same forms of communicative expectations as traditional media ignores the very nature of social media as channels of democratic public expression in many-to-many forms.

The norms of interaction on social media are defined by the user community that engage with a particular medium. Moreover, these norms are contextually specific to the medium, the relational expectations that we attach to the medium, and the participatory interactions among participants in the medium and within a particular community of participants on the medium.

For instance, how I communicate on my Facebook page is a continually emerging process that is constituted by my social networks on Facebook, the dynamic nature of these networks, and the nature of the issue I am discussing. What I post and how I converse on Facebook is relationally and contextually constituted.

Twitter, with its 140 character limitation, constitutes yet another set of emerging and dynamic expectations. When tweeting, I recognize that I am trying to get my point across powerfully within a very short space.

In each of these media, the communicative expectations of participation on the medium are negotiated actively by members. The norms of civility are simultaneously negotiated through interactions and through organic bottom-up communication among members.

Therefore, what I find most fascinating about social media is the way in which the rules of communication are actively co-created and negotiated by community members. To impose rules of communication from the top-down shuts off the democratic possibilities enabled by social media.

This very participatory and grassroots character of social media is also an entry point into democratic engagement.

It is in this context of participatory processes that social media threaten the dominant power structures that use top-down media channels as instruments of one-way communication, often deploying propaganda to frame a narrative in ways that serve these power structures. This is also where social media threaten elite power structures that are used to the idea of communication as a one-way form of information dissemination. One can hear the elite bemoaning the good old days when one could simply work with journalists and PR teams to disseminate the message.

Power structures silence possibilities often through censorship. In the context of the Arab Spring, we witnessed the top-down ways in which the power structures in Egypt sought to silence alternative ideas and local articulations by shutting down connectivity. The post 9-11 climate in the US witnessed the ways in which norms of civility were deployed as strategies for foreclosing meaningful conversations among academics on the question of terror. Invaluable questions that needed to be asked were silenced. Academics expressing their critical views were censored and/or fired. Similarly, in the context of the recent criticisms of Operation Protective Edge, calls to civility have been deployed as strategies for foreclosing alternative narratives and eyewitness accounts.

Calls to civility in this sense are also calls to silence alternative voices that critique the establishment narrative. The very participatory possibilities opened up by social media are essentially threatened when top-down interventions determine the linguistic possibilities on social media. Censorship, as we witnessed in the post 9-11 climate, worked actively to silence academic dissent and to suppress alternative articulations that questioned the dominant institutional structures. The prevailing climate of silencing dissent in post 9-11 US resulted in heavy costs including two neoimperial invasions that destabilized large areas of the Middle East, killed large numbers of civilians, and destroyed local infrastructures, all on the false premise of weapons of mass destruction. The silencing of dissent then worked precisely to serve the colonial aggression of the US in the form of Operation Iraqi Freedom.

Discursive closures erase imaginative possibilities rather than inviting them. In the face of these discursive closures, performances of dialogue become a sham.

These discursive closures are especially relevant in the realm of the silencing of academic voices. As Universities seek stronger public engagement as ways of staying relevant in a global landscape, they need to fundamentally begin by protecting the communicative rights of academics as public intellectuals and as meaningful contributors to public discourse. For Universities to connect to the possibilities of social change that are often marketed as branding slogans in recruitment materials and fundraising letters, nurturing open spaces of dialogue and creativity are vital. These spaces of dialogue and meaningful contribution are especially important during global crises.

Meaningfulness however might not be defined by a narrow set of guidelines imposed by the administrative structures of the University, turned into a rubric of some sort.

Rather, the very nature of social media call for meaningfulness to be defined by the issue at hand, the communicative expectations that are organically constituted around the issue, and the ways in which these expectations are negotiated. To come up with a narrow set of guidelines and benchmarks or to have a number of boxes to check silences the very discursive possibilities that are opened up by new media platforms.

The large scale violence in Gaza called for appropriately framed symbolic representations that still fall short in comparison to the magnitude of violence in Gaza. Tweets and posts of images of wounded children appeal to the affective desire to lend solidarity. Expressions of horror thus struggle to find meaningfulness in discursive norms that disrupt traditional understandings of civility.

Expressions on twitter in response to grassroots images of the effects of the bombings are visceral, depicting the embodied responses of pain  that struggle to find expression amid silences. In these very spaces of embodied pain and amid a collective sense of violation, academic voices find ways of engagement. The voices of Hamid Dabashi, Judith Butler, and Ilan Pappe offer interpretive frames through which we seek to find solidarity with the pain of the children, their parents, and their families in Gaza.

Engagement in such instances is not neatly packaged into five year impact factors and acceptance rates. Engagement is muddy, complex, and uncertain. Most importantly, engagement is often a challenge that an academic has to negotiate, especially if her or his views are aligned with the narratives of the oppressed, challenging the stories circulated by dominant structures.

As a scholar of communication, I find great inspiration from academic colleagues on many sides of an issue who try to work through the very public spaces of social media to find meaning, to debate, to dialogue, and to envision possibilities. These many possibilities, at times contradictory, at times complementary, depict beautifully the value of academic work and of knowledge to contribute to an ongoing conversation on a vital issue. They depict the value of dialogue, embodied through the technologies of social media even as these very technologies act as means of erasure.

For Universities such as UIUC with an active mission of public engagement, enabling a positive climate for faculty to actively engage in public discourse without the fear of censorship is a sign of commitment to the mission of engagement. Universities such as the UIUC have an opportunity to stand through such crises to demonstrate the essential commitment of universities as sites of knowledge production, where knowledge in its best of forms travels into the lives of communities we live amid, hopefully finding a meaningful connection with these lives and contributing meaningfully to public discourse. 


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