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ANALYSIS: Twitter is the new, virtual picket line

Social media can jump-start national movements: think Black Lives Matter and #MeToo. It’s also a means of forcing companies to listen to staff and customer grievances.

In that sense, Twitter and its ilk stand in for the old solidarity of workers’ unions. But the power of social media is also easily misdirected.

James Bennet, a New York Times editor, stepped down on Sunday after the paper published an op-ed written by a US senator advocating military intervention during national protests over the death of George Floyd. Several staffers protested on Twitter and more than 800 signed a letter denouncing the column for inaccuracies and for potentially putting journalists in danger alongside protesters.

Ill-judged posts that provoked employees and backers also forced out the editor in chief of Bon Appetit magazine, Adam Rapoport, and drew an apology from Greg Glassman, who founded the CrossFit exercise brand – but not before he lost supporters including Adidas-owned Reebok, a sponsor.

Even Facebook boss Mark Zuckerberg was on the receiving end of a virtual walkout by employees because the founder declined to fact-check or flag some posts by President Donald Trump.

The New York Times union weighed in on the latest controversy there, but overall, organised labour has been on the wane. In 1954, more than one in three US workers was in a union. Last year, the rate was a wisp over 10%, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Social media provides a natural vent for outrage and a meeting ground to coordinate with like-minded people when there’s no established forum for it.

Campaigns can encourage companies to examine cultural biases, hire more diverse workers, address pay gaps, and ensure benefits like sick leave. That’s powerful, and good.

The downside is that Twitter, Facebook and the rest can also be used to spread misinformation and fire up mobs.

Even in the worst old days, unions and management eventually had to listen to each other, agree on basic facts, and compromise. Social media has become a virtual picket line of sorts – but without that safety net.