Freedom of Expression and the Elevation of All Using Social Media

Person on phone and computer
(Photo Courtesy/iStock)

As our students, faculty and staff hit the mid-way point in the fall semester, we must recognize that USC is a place where we all come together from different backgrounds and life experiences to share our perspectives on the pressing challenges of our time. The university’s emphasis on freedom of expression and the elevation of all voices is paramount to USC’s longstanding commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion.

Which brings me to the way in which we communicate using social media.

Every time humans encounter substantially new technology; society needs to adjust. This happened with the advent of the printing press, steam engine, electricity, and nuclear power. The internet presents a similarly disruptive technology; social media is both a great advance and a great threat. Developing the wisdom to use these technologies well will significantly influence how our society advances.

These observations became ever more important to me this summer. I was horrified by the death of George Floyd and I reacted strongly to the resulting protests that unfolded both in person and online. Deeply felt wrongs emerged and were amplified by posts to social media platforms all over the world—and yes, from our own students’ social media accounts.

At USC, we educate capable and engaged students who use social media to communicate. They were deeply impacted by the events around them and communicated their sense of anger and frustration on multiple platforms and in multiple physical and online ways. During these polarizing events, issues of race and religion spilled out. The consequences are a reminder to us all that social media posts should respect those inside and outside the Trojan community. In no uncertain terms, our university condemns any online behavior that supports hatred. Period.

Also, it’s important to keep in mind that technology platforms are largely unregulated and because we have come to rely on social media to communicate, each of us is subject to harassment from large numbers of individuals. Our retweets, likes, and instantaneous responses can be well intended, thoughtful and heartfelt. They can also be written rapidly and anonymously responding with emotion unchecked by the subtle signs we gather from communicating face to face.

During recent events, I watched students at USC be trapped by such communication tools and face the unrepentant anger and expressions of hatred distributed with a tap of a button.

I believe it is imperative that we remain intentionally responsible in our online communication as we currently face three key events: the COVID-19 pandemic, the Black Lives Matter movement, and the 2020 presidential election.

In the coming months, emotions will run high, but as a university community, we must embrace this turbulence. We must face facts honestly. We must act with urgency whenever possible. When we do this, we can move towards lasting progress. As an engineer, I have long understood that change is always happening–stasis is an illusion.

A university is an ideal place to host the debates about how we move ahead. We welcome energy, ideas, proposals, statements, deep expressions of raw emotion, debates, petitions, and gatherings. We acknowledge the costs of effort, of striving; we acknowledge the exhaustion.

We celebrate mutual respect and, yes, the imperfect–we allow the space to be wrong in order to widen the space to learn, grow together and forge a better future. Our university believes that civil discourse and respectful exchange are the bedrock of higher education.

As a university, we have provided numerous statements on institutional policies and practices that condemn hatred and support civil discourse on the issues facing us. My purpose here is to use events of this past summer as a cautionary tale that the technologies available to us on our smartphones are enormously powerful. How we use them is shaping our society, our identities, and indeed our way of life. I wish to emphasize in using social media platforms that with great power comes great responsibility–please be aware of the power and responsibility we all share.

I want to thank you for your adaptability and perseverance during these unprecedented times. As we move forward, let us continue to actively work together. Stay safe, practice physical distancing, wear a mask, and, most importantly, practice kindness.

–Charles F. Zukoski, September 23, 2020