Oxford University Press has recently published a new book on campus discourse that we co-authored. The book, titled “Unassailable Ideas: How Unwritten Rules and Social Media Shape Discourse in American Higher Education,” addresses the need to foster a campus culture that is more open to dialog on and engagement with a diverse range of perspectives.
Starting today and continuing through the remainder of this week, we’ll be publishing a series of short daily posts with excerpts from the book and some brief added commentary.
One of the questions that might be asked is whether this book is addressing anything new. After all, concerns about campus discourse—and eye rolls in response from people who think those concerns are overblown—are a perennial feature of the higher education landscape.
But we think there is something new: the role of social media. Social media aren’t “new” in the strict technical sense. Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter were founded respectively in 2004, 2005, and 2006, and before Facebook there were companies like Myspace. But the role that social media now play in contemporary discourse is relatively recent.
Today’s mobile phones and wireless networks are far more capable than those of ten years ago, with the result that video is far easier to acquire and disseminate than in the past. Information, as well as misinformation and out-of-context information, can propagate through the digital ecosystem far more quickly and efficiently than before.
The tools used to decide what content we see on social media feeds have also become more advanced and pervasive. The consequences for society in general are profound, and are rightly the focus of a growing number of books, academic papers, and articles in popular media. But our focus is narrower. In the book, we explore the role of social media in campus discourse. As we explain:
Campuses have long had unwritten rules about what can and can’t be said. But in recent years, social media have changed how we communicate and have emerged as a powerful tool both for direct censorship and for strengthening the incentives for self-censorship, some of which is encouraged and supported by people within academia itself.
Both on campus and off, this is most visible through social media-driven public shaming campaigns launched in response to perceived transgressions. In addition, and arguably more importantly in the long run, there is an indirect effect that operates through the fear of potentially being targeted by social media “call-out culture.” That fear leads people to preemptively modify their behavior in order to avoid becoming a focus of attack. This means that the pressure to conform goes up, tolerance for dissenting views goes down, and the range of permissible opinions is narrowed.
In the campus context, this applies to research, teaching, and academic discourse more generally. In the pre-social media age, publication of a controversial research result would generally lead, some number of months later, to the publication of articles presenting rebuttals, to a period of debate among experts in the field, and more often than not to an eventual resolution. This is how knowledge advances.
Today, publication of controversial research can lead to a social media backlash that builds within weeks or even days. Faced with the pressure of a social media mob, academic journals will backtrack, questioning the very work that they had already subjected to peer review and deemed worthy of publication. University administrators will rapidly distance themselves from faculty members who publish research results that the Twittersphere has declared off-limits, even before any academic process has been completed to evaluate whether the attacks on the research have merit. In this climate, the pressure to self-censor is enormous.
Moreover, social media play an indirect role through the creation and sustenance of an “outrage culture” that produces incentives not to risk taking any position or making any statement that runs counter to the dominant beliefs. No faculty members want to be attacked on social media and left spinning in the wind by their university administrations. It’s far easier, and far better for one’s future career prospects, to adopt a new rule: Don’t perform or publish research that could lead to results that people on social media might not like. In other words, in determining what research gets performed, the Twittersphere now has a seat at the table.
Similar dynamics act to constrain teaching, where saying anything in the classroom that is deemed hostile to the dominant campus orthodoxy can lead to formal complaints, calls for punishment, social media shaming, and demands for apologies. In short, the loudest and most indignant voices on social media are shaping the college classroom environment, just as they are so often shaping contemporary discourse beyond the campus.
The censorious nature of academia is a consequence of a social media-reinforced campus culture in which there is enormous social and professional pressure to adhere to a particular worldview. That pressure arises in significant part because the costs of publicly questioning that worldview can be high. And, this culture tends to get further strengthened through a positive feedback cycle that makes the campus a more welcoming place for people who see the world similarly, and a far less welcoming place for those who don’t.
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