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By banning the president, Twitter has impacted our culture for generations (opinion)

Earlier this week, college and university faculty members, administrators and students began to return to their respective institutions to learn again, amid still-not-totally-clear federal and state guidelines regarding the COVID-19 pandemic that continues to wreak harm on the American people. The spring term looms ahead with uncertainty yet also the promise of changing weather and potential vaccinations against a virus that has claimed the lived of hundreds of thousands of Americans.

At the same time, conspiracy theorists attempted to stage a coup at the U.S. Capitol that many of us watched from our homes and home offices, wondering how we as a nation could possibly move on from this.

Then, on Friday evening, Twitter, one of the most popular social media platforms in the world — and one used by academics and college-age students alike — indefinitely suspended President Donald Trump’s account. Before what’s very likely to be a forthcoming impeachment by the U.S. House of Representatives — in other words, before politics — technology moved to take a stance.

Technology moves quickly. Ask anyone who has ever been a part of a team that fixes bugs in software applications. Undisputedly, it moves our culture nowadays, and often more quickly than the politics in which we find ourselves mired.

Once, in a committee meeting, a college professor told me, “Pedagogy and technologies are separate.” As a graduate student training in mental health counseling, I sometimes find myself challenging old-timers who wonder aloud when “therapy will return to the office, away from Zoom again.” But these technologies, like them or hate them, are a part of the fabric of our culture, institutions, workplaces and, most important, our students’ lives.

By taking a position against the sitting United States president, Twitter has already impacted our culture for generations to come. For some people, that position may entail celebration, while for others, challenge. Regardless, Twitter, a publicly traded company and platform through which those with less power can sometimes find community and empower action — and which millions of college students use — made an ethical decision.

In the mission and values statements of many of the colleges and universities in which we work, teach, conduct research and provide support and leadership, we find mentions of the word “ethics.” So many of us strive to provide ethical educations that encourage students — college freshmen through doctoral candidates — to discover, identify and act upon what is right in their present and future positions based on the knowledge and experience they acquire during the brief years they are with us. Institutions offer courses in the ethics of technology, medicine, law and human services. Philosophy departments sometimes find themselves offering their own training and wisdom to this cause, integrating ethical coursework into general education curricula by way of their faculty.

Twitter’s ban against Donald Trump was one of the most publicly clear ethical actions taken by a technology company in our lifetimes so far, one which will have rippling implications that I can’t possibly predict here. It will be cited, alluded to, taught about in our classroom — and, yes, tweeted about — as early as this spring semester and well into our individual retirements.

For those of us who work at colleges and universities, for which ethics are a keystone of our students’ learning experience, it’s important that we identify what happened here: what happened over the past century of our country’s history as well as the last four years of an America politically misshapen by conflict and public aggression against truth and the systems that seek out and preserve it. And we must explore what happened to our own lives, and the lives of the students with whom we interact, when they learned one of America’s most significant and clear messages about ethics. By banning Donald Trump from its platform, Twitter demanded that we speak truth to power. And it instructed us through example not to provide power to voices that seek to dismantle, alter or obliterate a truth-loving disposition that higher education so often cultivates through a complex and intentionally designed enrichment of students’ lives. Ethical stances like these, which honor truth and denounce violence, are fundamental to American democracy.

In the wake of the continuing ravages of COVID-19 and a turnover in American political power, and as we struggle to meet enrollment goals and financial challenges on our campuses, we have ethical questions to answer and questions about power, too. While the American public remains divided on matters of political opinion and values, on Jan. 8 Twitter made a vital decision for the safety of our country about how power, voices and action can intersect publicly. Twitter is not a government or our democracy, but if you haven’t used it yourself, it’s highly likely that the students sitting in your classrooms this semester do. They’re learning ethics this way. Everyone is watching. Now is the time to talk about what it all means.

What I imagine it means is that we should give students more opportunities to name and identify the ethical actions that guide their own lives, centered in historical, literary, scientific, social and technical realities. Faculty and staff members should be aware of the ways in which we use technologies and how they change and intersect with our students’ lives and the culture we inhabit when making all types of decisions — whether in our institutional strategic plans, curriculum design or pedagogical practices.

It means that we all have a role to play in doing what is right and good — and that includes considering how we recruit and retain students, celebrate diversity in ways that are meaningful, provide learning opportunities that focus on the realities outside our campuses, and recognize and respect the individual lives of all of our students, past, present and future. As practitioners or learners, we all have ethical discussions to have and decisions to make. If we’re to do what is right, perhaps Twitter might lead the way, but it’s now up to us to take it from here.

Ben Stoviak is a professional instructional designer working in higher education and current mental health counseling graduate student. He is the author of “The Gay Agenda,” a blog on psychologytoday.com.

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