A lesson Oprah learned in the 1980s could help Facebook and Twitter today

Oprah Winfrey, setting the conversation, in 1987.
Oprah Winfrey, setting the conversation, in 1987.
Image: AP Photo/Linda Schaefer
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

When Oprah Winfrey is asked about epiphanies and turning points in her life, she often tells the story of a The Oprah Winfrey Show episode in 1986, when she invited skinheads and Ku Klux Klan members onto her nationally syndicated, top-rated TV program.

“You wouldn’t think that they would be my greatest spiritual teachers,” Winfrey said this week at the Qualtrics X4 Experience Management Summit in Salt Lake City, in a March 7 interview about personal breakthroughs. But her guests that day unwittingly taught her a vital lesson about discourse and influence.

The episode, she said, eventually led her to redirect her energy and refocus her talk show. It would convince her to “become a force for good,” and to stop letting other people use her platform to spread their own toxicity.

As it turned out, her fable-like account of that incident from more than 30 years ago shares some uncanny similarities with a narrative that’s unfolding today in the era of social media.

A media pioneer is blindsided

First, some context: In the late 1980s, The Oprah Winfrey Show was still relatively new. The talk show format existed, but Winfrey was remaking it, creating a more intimate and emotional experience.

Even high-achieving beginners, however, can be blindsided, and that’s what happened to Winfrey. She went into that fateful episode believing she was going to expose the skinheads, to “let the rest of the world see what their vitriol and hatred look like.” During a commercial break, though, she noticed her guests were signaling to each other on stage and to people in the audience, and the atmosphere quickly turned toxic. The tense experience made her think, “I don’t like the fact that I’m putting this out into the world, because I think that I am telling the world about them, but I could sense they are using this as a platform to spread their hatred.”

This was a tiny breakthrough, but it was naturally followed by conditions that primed her for another, she said, “because life is always trying to show itself to you, to reveal the best of yourself to you.” Within weeks of the skinhead fiasco, Winfrey aired an episode on infidelity. In this case, her wily producers had convinced a man to appear on air with his wife and his girlfriend. On camera, the man dropped a bombshell, informing his wife that his girlfriend was pregnant. Winfrey was aghast. “This should not happen to a human being, and certainly not under my watch,” she remembers thinking.

She called a meeting with her producers to announce that, from then on, she and the team needed to be clearer on what they were striving for and how the show was serving its audience. If it would tackle a problematic and sensitive topic, she would know why and how, and make clear what effect she wanted to have.

A lesson for our social media age

It would be a fitting anecdote for any crowd, but it was especially relevant in this Salt Lake City venue, where more than 10,000 people, largely working in technology and data science, had gathered to talk shop. Her story contained unmissable parallels to the plight of modern platforms, like Facebook and Twitter.

The differences between the social media sites’ current ethical crises and Winfrey’s soul-searching in the 1980s are obvious. Social media platforms were designed to share user-generated content, not one person’s vision. And whereas The Oprah Winfrey Show attracted a few million viewers per episode in its early years, and grew to average audience sizes of 7 million to 9 million viewers per episode by the mid-2000s, Facebook is visited by more than 2 billion active users per month globally, it is estimated, while Twitter has more than 300 million users per month.

But consider that both The Oprah Winfrey Show and the social media sites exploded in popularity upon their debut, quickly becoming the conversation-setters of their eras, while their platforms were still young and their leaders were still prone to missteps. Consider that both were quickly confronted with unexpected consequences, like unwittingly becoming tools for hate speech and cruelty. (Except in Facebook’s case, that cruelty has proven to be violent and traumatizing.)

That Facebook or Twitter’s reach is that much larger than Winfrey’s only strengthens the argument, made by many critics, that the social networks have become publishers or broadcasters in their own right, and should behave as such. We arguably need to see a human’s vision, a masterplan. So far, it appears to be missing.

Intention is a force field that changes everything

Around the time the episodes about skinheads and cheating husbands aired, Winfrey discovered the work of spiritual thinker Gary Zukov, who wrote that what you put out in the world comes back to you, and that any action is always preceded by an intention. “The intention is the force field that carries from the action and all the way to the end result,” Winfrey told her audience in Salt Lake City. Letting that principle sink in, she said, changed the trajectory of her career and her life.

Big tech companies that stand accused of putting their massive data projects, fast growth, and corporate interests before ethics and humanity now stand tasked with changing their trajectories, and transforming their beasts into vehicles for social good, or at least ones that don’t enable evil. Arguably, their job is a lot more complicated than Winfrey’s, which makes it all the more essential that the tech platforms operate with clearly defined intentions, and with policies that don’t blatantly undermine them.