Is it ethical to be creating content for social media sites like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and TikTok? Are people exploring any alternative platforms or approaches? Has engagement dropped? Is social media really helping the heritage sector achieve our objectives?
For the final SHSMG event of 2022, a handful of previous speakers shared their thoughts on the state of social media:
- Kelly Forbes, Digital Manager at Museums Galleries Scotland (MGS)
- Sally Pentecost FSAScot, Dig It! Communications & Events Officer at the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland
- David C. Weinczok FSAScot, Digital Media Content Producer at National Museums Scotland (NMS)
- Ali George, Senior Digital Content Officer at Historic Environment Scotland (HES)
Is Social Media Really Helping the Heritage Sector Achieve Our Objectives?
It depends on the objective.
David noted that NMS has found that while social media (especially Twitter) works best for spontaneous silliness, meta/referential commentary and hot takes, it often doesn’t work as well for in-depth stories or organic excitement and the ‘social’ side of social media. This is a noticeable difference between the last few years and social media in the 2010s, in that recently we have become saturated by social media and the platforms have adopted an increasingly commodified model which rewards gaming algorithms over producing quality, accurate and socially constructive content.
Whether or not social media helps drive footfall and exhibition visits is also unclear. It certainly can, especially when exhibitions have wider cultural reach due to associations with popular media, for example the current Doctor Who Worlds of Wonder exhibition. However, David was sceptical more generally about social media’s tangible impact being proportionate to the time and resources invested in it.
In terms of reaching new audiences, analytics show that 79% of NMS’s social media followers are based in Scotland and 94% have visited their museums. This suggests that their social media is something of a localised echo-chamber and that they’re not reaching new users or those users are not inclined to engage with the museum’s socials.
Sally explained that the Dig It! audience is growing but that the team don’t have the data to show if they’re actually reaching the audiences they want to attract, what the quality of that engagement is, and if it changes how people value archaeology and how relevant they think it is to them.
The archaeology sector in particular, is still very reliant on social media (particularly Facebook) for advertising community events and sharing updates. For now, they’re going to keep posting and focus on experimenting with their content. The team sees social media as one piece of the puzzle, and not the be-all-end-all when it comes to engaging new audiences.
Ali brought up the fact that one of the key things the HES team does with social media is to listen to voices both in the sector and outside it. Twitter and Instagram in particular have given a voice to Black, Disabled, LGBTQ+ communities to share important perspectives via threads, lives and stories. They’ve made use of a lot of free educational content here and found space for community connections. These platforms have given HES content leads and an avenue to reach out to offer paid opportunities for “own voices” content.
They’re also a way to listen to users and try to research stories, answer questions or explore areas of interest. The HES blog is the backbone of this, and social referrals account for about a quarter of traffic to the blog. Ali believes that whilst there’s a clear question around how ethical the owners of these companies are and how they use our money, there are still ways to use the platforms for positive change.
Are You Exploring Any Alternative Platforms or Approaches?
Yes, but organisations also aren’t logging off these popular platforms just yet.
David explained that the NMS team are working on a new project called ‘Objects in Place’, a six-part blog series that flips the script on traditional social media content. The series makes ‘place’ the focus, encourages exploration, speaks to locals and visitors, widens the appeal by featuring artwork, and provides evergreen content.
Sally told the group that Dig It! have not paid for social media ads for years because they felt uncomfortable giving money to Facebook. Instead, they used that marketing budget in other ways, such as to commission artists.
She also explained that they began reducing their social media output two months ago (from posting every day to four times a week on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook). Early analytics show that posting less frequently has not negatively affected engagement stats too much, though they’ve had to come to terms with the fact that they’re probably not going to hit their social media targets, which are reported to their funders. This might be scary, but the team has reported that this has freed them up to work more on other important tasks which better align with the ethos and objectives of the project and its funders.
According to Ali, HES currently has 18 active social channels across several brands, each serving a different purpose and audience. They’re on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube and LinkedIn, posting up to 300 pieces of organic content and blog posts a month as well as supporting paid campaigns. Whilst they’re keeping a close watch on Twitter (they have added it as a standing agenda point to their weekly team meeting and put it on their Risk Register), she believes that social media will remain a core part of what they do to try and engage and inform. She noted that people need to see the thing you’re promoting at least eight times in different places before buying a product (such as a ticket to an event), so they need to keep a variety of channels.
They’ve also been looking at TikTok again but haven’t taken the plunge. Ali explained that there are a lot of considerations around building a new platform from scratch which would require a radical departure from their current brand tone (and therefore a lot of buy in). They’re also aware of and exploring alternatives such as Mastodon and Hive, but organisationally couldn’t jump ship without doing extensive research and making sure the alternative option is as safe as a social media space can be, is accessible to their audiences and be a place where they can make the maximum impact.
Ali also noted that social media is only one part of their toolkit. They also pursue traditional media and marketing, physical outreach, publications and research, statutory input and more.
Is it Ethical to be Creating Content for Platforms like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and TikTok?
This was a complicated question with no straight answer. And if you’re wondering why we were asking, summaries of these platforms’ activities are available in these articles from Business Insider, PNAS, and The Intercept.
Kelly raised a number of concerns about the ethics of leaving social media; for example, what happens if social media is an essential fund-raising tool for your organisation and withdrawing from the platform means you have to make staff redundant? And what if you leave and someone starts impersonating you, spouting false information and damaging your reputation? If you leave, you have no control over the narrative around your brand.
David said he was concerned by how Twitter in particular had become more politically interventionist, always favouring far-right and anti-democratic interests. He also noted that the model is based on a pay-to-play format (with the new charge for Twitter verification as an example) and said this is inherently exclusionary (and funds problematic interests).
Sally agreed that there are many compelling reasons to leave the platforms on ethical grounds, and she personally wouldn’t disagree with anyone for doing so. But she noted that we should also acknowledge that social media has done a lot of good. Social media can compensate for deficits in social capital, for example, by enabling easy access to a large network of connections. It has allowed Black, Indigenous Activists of Colour and disabled folks to mobilise. She asked: “If we all leave these platforms, and those platforms disappear as a result, how do folks connect and mobilise and how do we stop our feeds becoming echo chambers of people with experiences just like our own?”
Ali also raised some important questions. She asked, “If we leave, but the vast majority of users continue to use these tools to get information on Scottish history and connect with the heritage community, where is their info coming from? Who is correcting misinformation? And if we look to operate outside these platforms, is that ethical? To suddenly remove free, trustworthy access to and content around Scotland’s history and heritage? Are any of the alternatives as easy to use or accessible as those with huge development teams dedicated to working on user experience?” HES’s organisational message is ‘Heritage For All’. Ali explained that the team make a vast amount of organic content to inform, entertain and educate people on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram because currently that’s still where people are.
So, Should We Stay, or Should We Go?
Once again, there was no straightforward “yes” or “no” conclusion.
Kelly reminded us that this situation isn’t new. Google+ was shut down in 2018 and it hasn’t impacted our lives too much. As of the time of the SHSMG event, only 1.6% of people who said they’d leave Twitter have actually done so.
And while you might feel anxious about whether Twitter will continue or not, it’s important to remember that the skills you’ve gained creating content and conversing with communities remain. Adaptability and a good understanding of your audience is key. But if you stay, and especially if you’re in a supervisory role, she urged us to ask ourselves if it’s ethical to put your staff in the firing line. She asked us to think about their mental health when they’re the ones going through comments, especially employees of colour. For more advice, she recommended the Museums Association Code of Ethics and Charity Digital’s resource on supporting staff who must use social media for their role.
David, who has left Twitter, noted that there were personal questions of digital legacy around quitting. He found that social media was detracting from real-world experiences and produced negative mental health impacts, as well as diminished returns from a work perspective. Now, nearly three months on from quitting all his social media accounts, David has no intention of returning to any platform in his personal life.
Sally didn’t advocate either staying or leaving. She said she can understand why folks have left, and she does believe it’s possible that the more people who leave social media could increase the likelihood of structural change by forcing the platforms to change their behaviour in order to bring users back. Crucially, she doesn’t think it’s unethical to leave if you acknowledge that not everyone can afford to. She noted that there has been plenty of valid criticism of white people leaving social media (scholar Danah Boyd used the term ‘digital white flight’ to describe this phenomenon), and there’s a concern that a mass Exodus of privileged social media users to other platforms could create a two-tiered communicative society. So, if you do leave, you must strive to build routes for marginalised people to be included in your projects, either on new social media platforms, or in other areas of your work.
Personally, she doesn’t want to leave just yet. She explained that we’ve had decades, or even centuries of making non-white, queer, disabled people feel excluded from archaeology, and she doesn’t feel comfortable abandoning the in-roads we have started to make in finding marginalised creators and inviting them to take leading roles in Dig It!.
If you’re going to stay, Sally suggests not giving your money to these platforms in the form of ads and making sure you continue to lift up suppressed voices to make up for some of the evilness.
If you’d like to keep up with our speakers’ work, follow Kelly, Sally, David, and Ali on LinkedIn.
- ‘The Ethics of Quitting Social Media’, Robert Mark Simpson Forthcoming in Carissa Véliz (Ed.), The Oxford Handbook of Digital Ethics (Oxford: Oxford University Press).
- ‘Leaving Twitter now says more about you than Elon Musk’, Sunny Singh, Open Democracy
- ‘Social Media Ethics and the Politics of Information’, Jennifer Forestal & Abraham Singer, Business Ethics Journal Review 8 (6): 31-37 (2020)