#WDBJShooting and Trust Communities

by Kathryn Marguy

As a publicist, my days are consumed by social media. I post to our JHU Press Twitter and Facebook accounts, solicit content for our blog, and communicate with the media to schedule events and interviews. This position has allowed me the opportunity to connect with authors, reporters, corporate organizations, and fellow book lovers from around the world. There is a sort of safety that comes from this comradery. The WDBJ shooting on Wednesday seriously violated that level of trust.

LedeA real-time communication tool like Twitter allows each user to create his or her own social circles. JHU Press author Irene Wu calls these groups “trust communities.” The idea of trust communities, Dr. Wu writes in her book Forging Trust Communities: How Technology Changes Politics, “joins the ideas of network and community as a social group with the capacity to take collective action but without the rules and enforcement usually associated with institutions.” Sometimes that collective action takes root in social activism; in other cases, these networks provide support to a community physically separated by continents. Whatever your aims, twenty-first century media has allowed us the opportunity to open wide that circle of trust on a global scale.

In her book, Dr. Wu identifies three facets of trust communities (pp. 12-14):

  1. Identity is a person’s sense of self and may motivate a person’s actions. In his work on why people cooperate, Tom Tyler shows that there are two aspects of identity—social and emotional—that explain why an individual may cooperate in the interest of the community rather than acting selfishly. Both of these aspects of identity rest on a fundamental need of people to maintain a favorable and positive sense of self. Social identity is how people define their status through their membership in a group. The more strongly a person identifi es with the group, the more completely he or she merges individual goals with the group’s goals. Group membership also gives individuals a sense of pride and an expectation of respect from other members, both of which motivate people to cooperate. Seen from a different angle, people will avoid adopting signs that they belong to groups that are not respected—such as carrying a book by opposition politicians that are vilified by society—until a time comes when that opposition group gain respect. Emotional identity is another important aspect that explains people’s willingness to cooperate. Psychologists show that people have a fundamental need to have attachments to others and will act to maintain positive, significant personal relationships.
  2. Trust has many facets; the aspect most relevant to this study is trust that enables cooperation. Why is it that people trust each other enough to cooperate, when acting individually might be in their self-interest? Behavioral social scientists like Elinor Ostrom have conducted experiments that show trust can be the result of repeated interaction. For example, a series of communications can lead one partner to believe the other partner can be relied on to reciprocate. When such series multiply, people in a network begin to form expectations about others’ behavior. They trust each other, and then it is easier for them to cooperate.
  3. Social capital makes it easier for members of a community to take action together. It includes trust, norms, and networks, as Robert Putnam puts it in his works on collective action. Trust is the expectation that others will reciprocate. Norms identify when that reciprocity can be expected. Networks of civic engagement are those intense interactions across society in groups like neighborhood associations, sports leagues, and political parties. The boundaries of these networks define the scope of possible action. In Putnam’s analysis there are two kinds of social capital—bonding social capital among people who are similar, and bridging social capital among people who are not similar. It is bridging social capital that is the hardest to create and the most valuable when it comes to cooperation.

The perversion of these three elements formed Vester Lee Flanagan’s social media plan. Flanagan’s own identity as a victim within the WDBJ organization lay at the center of his campaign. As a journalist, he was familiar with the trust factor within social media groups and understood how to curate his content in order to build an audience. Finally, the concept of social capital gained legs as the story broke on larger news venues. People in search of answers flocked to Flanagan’s Facebook page to better understand this tragedy. As Farhad Manjoo wrote in the New York Times, “[Flanagan] had been counting on the mechanics of these services and on our inability to resist passing on what he had posted. For many, that realization came too late. On these services, the killer knew, you often hit retweet, like or share before you realize just quite what you have done.” Flanagan’s run ultimately ended with his own suicide, and we are left with a shooting gone viral, the videos and posts of which will circle the Internet indefinitely.

All shootings like this breed unease, but I can’t help but feel personally violated by Flanagan’s social media efforts. A system I have placed trust in has been used for a tool to broadcast a murderer’s agenda. That hits far too close to home, and makes me examine the trust community I’ve built on social media and the faith I place in its players.

So, how to do we move forward? Conversations about the treatment of mental health and gun control policies are vital for change, and should continue until Washington takes action accordingly. Similar incidents have become disturbingly common in recent years, and it is obvious that action on these matters needs to be taken. But I think this is also a time to reflect on social media’s capacity both for good and for serious harm. Should we pause before sharing inflammatory content? Modern social media can be a source of encouragement and activism, and I think the wide-open nature of sites like Facebook and Twitter contribute to that positive force. But there are sharks in the water, and I think we need to be wary.

wuKathryn Marguy (@pubkat) is a publicist at Johns Hopkins University Press. Irene S. Wu is a senior analyst at the US Federal Communications Commission. The author of Forging Trust Communities: How Technology Changes Politics and From Iron Fist to Invisible Hand: The Uneven Path of Telecommunications Reform in China, she teaches in the Communications, Culture & Technology Program at Georgetown University.