Reflections on Social Media and Our Responsibility

Release Date: 
May 20, 2016

Press Contact: Liz Flowers, lflowers@demos.org

Matt Bruenig has been a prolific blogger for Demos on issues of poverty and inequality, writing crucial analyses such as, “Another Way to See How Family Poverty Works.” His data analysis for Demos has made him one of the most consistent progressive voices in the blogosphere. However, his voice on his personal Twitter account has fallen far below the standards that Demos seeks to uphold in our public discourse.

Those who represent our organization in public are often confronted with objectionable arguments, with statements that offend our values, and even with ad hominem attacks – but nevertheless, we take pains to ensure that our voice is one that consistently elevates the debate. To have the democracy we want, the public square needs to be a place where people want to be.

We know that this aspiration is far from reality. There is now a currency to engaging in personal vitriol on social media, particularly on political Twitter. Some see this as the normal combat of politics; we see it as corrosive and unnecessary to advancing moral arguments and better policy agendas.

Today, we are taking a harder look at how our staff, fellows and independent contractors engage on social media—and unfortunately, we are finding that we have not met our own standards of vigilance to ensure that nobody associated with Demos is crossing an important line. After our tweet apologizing for Matt’s personal attacks including the term “scumbag,” we received emails from multiple individuals who made it clear that we were not aware of the extent to which Matt has been at the center of controversies surrounding online harassment of people with whom he disagrees.

It was evidence of a pattern of behavior that is far out of line with our code of conduct. After multiple conversations, Matt Bruenig and Demos have agreed to disagree on the value of the attack mode on Twitter. We part ways on the effectiveness of these kinds of personalized, online fights and so we are parting ways as colleagues today. And just as we did with Matt three years ago when he first joined our blog, Demos will continue to find and amplify the voices of lesser-known progressive policy commentators to make for a more inclusive public sphere.

One last note on the public sphere. It has been a particularly challenging place for progressives on opposite sides during the Democratic primary, and we know that there is a Sanders versus Clinton overlay to the Twitter exchange on Thursday night. We want to be clear: we are not taking issue with our blogger’s political opinions or with him challenging prominent, powerful people. What troubles us is a pattern of tone and conduct, not his chosen targets or the content of his ideas.

At Demos, we’re taking seriously the opportunity that social media provides, and the risks that it entails. We are particularly concerned about the well-documented claims of hostile environments for women and people of color in a public realm that is just now being democratized through tech – but which will never be truly inclusive if we allow vitriol to be the tool of not just our worst anonymous bullies but some of our best policy minds. We hope that Matt embraces a better way, and commit as an organization to using our platforms to create the discourse that our democracy deserves.