Social Media Discourse: Policy Solutions or Moral Panic?

Here is the issue: can Internet and Twitter campaigns produce the urge for good public policy or do they encourage moral panic?



The last several weeks have offered lots of evidence that social networking sites can command the attention of the public and institutional leadership.

The outrage on social media about racist remarks by Clippers owner Donald Sterling dominated the Internet and traditional news and brought decisive action by NBA Commissioner Adam Silver.

The outrange on Twitter over the abductions by the terrorist organization Boko Haram of almost 300 girls from a school in Nigeria grew more slowly but ultimately commanded a response by the United States and other governments and produced belated pledges from the country’s President Goodluck Jonathan to rescue the girls.

Clearly the effects of social media can dominate the public agenda. It is less clear that these effects produce real policy changes or grass roots discourse to find viable solutions to important social problems revealed in such crises.

Discussions of social media “effects” are hauntingly familiar. Legacy media “effects” also centered on the public agenda. They went by names like agenda-setting, CNN effect, priming, conditioning, socialization and dozens of other variants. They claimed that media shaped public issues and individual behavior.

But changing policy is complex. Some policy makers claim media agendas siphon resources from long-term planning to solve problems. They say resources are diverted to create an appearance of responding to crises. That leaves longer-term efforts to control crises were under funded.

The Lede’s Robert Mackey ( has examined whether “hashtag activism” can work. His sources, particularly Teju Cole (@tejucole), point out difficulties glossed over by “the fervor of our hashtags.”

The latest examples have created action. The deeper question is whether they have produced policies to prevent future cases of such crises. Does banning Donald Sterling improve racial understanding? Does sending a team of experts to Nigeria stop religious violence?

American philosopher John Dewey has argued that informed public discourse among the people affected by problems generates the best solutions to social problems. It is not yet clear that social media produce that kind of discourse. It seems that in many cases social media generate something more akin to “moral panic.” It’s the same kind of problem typified by the “effects” of legacy media.