By now, we know that social media is more likely to bring out the worst in us than the best in us. Or, more accurately, it is likely to bring out the worst of us, while the silent many just groan and become more dispirited at the state of things.
The question that we need to ask ourselves this year, though, is whether social media is changing us as a society and hurting us as a people. The evidence appears increasingly plain that it is. Our worry is that, as Americans, we are increasingly unwilling to consider ideas that are contrary to our own biases and beliefs, that we are that much more eager to tune them out or shout them down or that we just don’t encounter them at all in our streams of information.
These days, people who disagree aren’t just our neighbors with different points of view. They are our political enemies, called out as such over and over not only in the gutter stream of cable “news” and internet comments, but also more frequently in social media posts.
Some of us are becoming like children who will eat only what we like at every meal. Try to sneak in a vegetable and a tantrum ensues. The reactions are childish because they don’t answer argument with argument or reason with reason. They are emotional, not logical, in their responses to things with which they disagree. So many people online are often so assured of the self-evident righteousness of their perspectives that they don’t bother to support them with arguments or counterarguments. They just go right to the ad hominem attacks and the dehumanizing.
Social media doesn’t just exacerbate this problem, it also feeds on it. Algorithms are set to ensure a steady diet of confirmation bias and emotional manipulation with every click of the mouse.
In December, the Pew Research Center reported that social media have surpassed newspapers as a source of news for Americans. Twenty percent of Americans now cite social media as a frequent news source. It’s easy to lament this as a newspaper. But the more important question is whether we should lament it as Americans. Take an honest look at the quality of information and the quality of the national discourse and the answer seems clear that we should not continue down this path.
We know that social media has become the preferred platform autocracies use to control their populaces and undermine democracy. It’s not just Russia. It’s happening all over the world. And we know that even after the social media giant Facebook became aware that it was being used in such a manner, it was slow to react, even as its machine-learning algorithms continued to serve people not the best information, but rather the information most likely to keep them on Facebook, clicking one more time, watching one more ad.
Twitter, meanwhile, is a land of bots and trolls that even the most carefully curated feed will struggle to keep out and where a 280-character limit promises not reason and depth, but rather appeals to shallow emotion.
By now, we know the social media giants are not going to change. Their revenue model is too tied to keeping us online, collecting our personal data and preferences and then selling them to all comers — often without consent.
Our sense of politics is that if change is to come, it has to bubble up from the people.
It will be up to us as Americans to ask hard questions about who we are and how we want to relate to one another. In 2019, we have to be willing to treat one another online as neighbors and fellow citizens. We have to be willing to hear one another out and to respond not from our gut but from our minds — and then support leaders who emulate such behavior.
We also need to be willing to hold social media accountable for the material it spreads, for how it treats our personal data as a commodity and for the division it so often sows among us. That can mean speaking up about it, or reducing the frequency we use it or saying goodbye to certain sites altogether in hopes that more ethical companies will replace them.
The old saying “we are what we eat” applies here. We are what we consume. And with social media, that consumption is too often unhealthy. Let’s stop this year and do something about it.