The Ohio State University Alumni Association

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Today’s plethora of voices requires context

Louis Maraj ’18 PhD, an assistant professor of English at the University of Pittsburgh, traces hashtags’ roots.

Phrases like “We shall overcome” and “I have a dream” are similar to hashtags like #blacklivesmatter or #metoo. They have the power to affect how we see reality and understand society.

The slogans and buttons of the 1960s are very much related to the hashtags we see today, though the media we use to communicate are markedly different. Protests can garner regional, national and international attention because of hashtags, whereas in the 1960s, newspapers and media outlets spread messages.

Think about what happened in Ferguson, Missouri, with Michael Brown. When that message was being spread, it resulted in action. In the 1960s, if it were on TV, folks far away would have to travel if they wanted to take part in the protest, whereas someone not in Ferguson today can spread the message and really mobilize something in local areas. That’s one benefit.

But on the other hand, misinformation and fake news are an everyday thing now. That’s a constraint of using social media to spread these messages.

We live in an era in which it can be turned against the message and spread. It’s easier and faster now, but also there’s a lot of fact checking we need to do before we jump onboard. I would hope that we’re becoming more skeptical and more critical in thinking through these things, but there is a numbing effect because of the age we live in and the amount of media we consume on a daily basis.

The point of my job is to teach students to take a second to understand the context. Something coming across social media is coming across in a different way than something printed in a book or magazine or newspaper. The university has a big part to play in that as a site of the kind of critical thinking and healthy skepticism that is necessary for analyzing the world around us. I remain hopeful.