It’s not the technology, stupid

By now the simple facts are widely known.  On January 19th, a fraternity at Arizona State University hosted a party on the occasion of Martin Luther King’s birthday during which students wore baggy clothes, flashed gang signs, and drank from watermelon-shaped cups.  Then, predictably, they posted photos of themselves on social media with hashtags like #blackoutformlk and #ihaveadream. 

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This is hardly the first instance of self-immolation by Instagram.  Something similar took place at the University of Florida in 2012 when white frat members partied in “gangsta” outfits and blackface, which is difficult to write without cringing.  Photos were widely distributed and caused a furor.

Social media have played a role in crimes, as well.  In an infamous case in Ohio in 2012, two high school football players raped an unconscious 16-year-old girl at an alcohol-fueled party.  Photos and comments on social media were part of the subsequent investigation and trial, when the young men in question pled guilty and were sent to prison.

We are accustomed now to the arguments that inevitably trail these events.  The advent of social media and the ubiquity of smartphones have altered the behavioral landscape, more or less inciting these outrages and providing an easy means of showing off boneheaded or criminal behavior.

A moment’s reflection ought to leave us at least skeptical about such cause-and-effect claims.  Certainly moronic behavior on campuses has been with us for, well, centuries. 

That the word gets out and goes everywhere instantaneously is new, yes.  But focusing on that new reality and pointing to social media as though they were another communication demon misses the point. 

More, though, it’s another instance of what communication scholar Paul M. Dombrowski calls “technologism,” a confusion of technology with morality.  When we focus on the technologies that facilitate human behavior, we may miss the moral, ethical choices involved.

The important questions about what happened at ASU are not about social media.  They concern how young people could think to make crude, racist visual jokes in an organized insult of the Civil Rights icon of the 20th century.

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