Is social media destroying our humanity?
I feel bad about dignifying this clickbait title a response but it really rankled me. It also inspired me so it can’t be all bad!
The main gist of the article is that use of social media encourages our worst excesses and therefore is bad. Part of the argument is that the authors’s facebook and Twitter feed is full of selfies, artfully posed and constructed images of perfection, suntan and napalm. Beautiful images contrasted with horror upon horror.
What is not considered is any context. The person taking the selfie and posting it may be vain or they may be deeply insecure and looking for validation or making a show of strength. If you complain that your feed is full of people writing about their breakfast and negativity then follow different people. I use Twitter for work and find it incredibly useful. I also know Twitter is but one platform is not necessarily representative of all people.
At one point there is a reference to pining for the days when y’know, people really talked to each other and confrontations were sorted in the backyard.
This argument has been going as long as history. It’s not like how it was the old days.
But it is. The only difference is the means of expressing human behaviours has changed. The underlying behaviours of compassion and cruelty haven’t changed.
There is an airy dismissal of all the good that social media can do followed by an intense focus on the bad aspects.
I don’t deny that social media can be a terrible and destructive force. Twitterstorms driven by outrage can destroy a life in seconds only to turn on their instigator. It is not always social media behind it but the mainstream media. There’s a great illustration of how one tweet was used to manufacture outrage, to then produce a backlash to that outrage and so on.
But social media also allows critical voices to be heard, counterpoints and alternative view points challenging established thought and lazy stereotypes. Quiet voices that gently point out the lazy ‘whataboutery’ that occurred in wake of the Paris attacks.
Shortly after the attacks and the shows of solidarity popped up online a picture and tweet started doing the rounds of what claimed to be a photo of an explosion in Beirut. The picture the ‘mainstream media’ didn’t report on. It duly got retetweeted and shared and lots of well intentioned people shook their heads at the callousness of the mainstream media and congratulated themselves on being so very switched on and informed.
Except they weren’t.
The image was from 2006. A quick search on your favoured search engine would show that there were reports of the attack in Beirut. Lots of them. Through the magic of real time analytics journalists could point out that there are articles on these world events. They are just not as widely read. There’s a counterpoint to that argument too about media agenda setting which illustrates the endlessly fascinating and challenging rabbit holes of complexity. How did I find it? The same way I found the other article.
When social media allows for the quick merciless and relentless attacks on individuals it also allows others to mobilise in defence. Attempts to silence through death threats and personal attacks backfire with the voices they seek to silence being heard at the highest level and driving changes in attitudes and responses. Much is heard of oversensitivity but part of it is that people are now hearing from perspectives they hadn’t heard before and it is uncomfortable to be held accountable for and challenged on long held views.
The techniques being used in these attacks are not new. They are refinements of political strategies to isolate, denigrate and devastate opponents. ‘Dead cat’, ad hominem attacks, taking things out of context, misrepresentation…they’re all part of an established political play book.
As part of the #AnythingGoes linky, I read a post on how to keep children from the ‘dark side‘. From becoming what we fear. Othering plays a big part in that along with dehumanising. Whilst social media allows platforms for voices to rail against refugees or immigrants it also allows those same refugees and immigrants to tell their story so they are more than just a label.
When clickbait headlines on postnatal depression cause alarm and distress social media allows people to provide the story behind the headline and challenge sensationalism. Through social media people can share their experiences to reassure, comfort and support others. Communities can develop and mobilise to change and improve.
It’s not social media that is the problem. It’s the tendency to take mental shortcuts with stereotypes and confirmation bias. It’s where we see something in the news that we know about and we know that the report is wrong. It’s based on flawed data or a poor understanding of history or context. We shake our head, turn the page and then read uncritically about a topic we know nothing about and take the story as read.
It’s understandable that we take mental shortcuts, things are busy, lots to do but we also have a responsibility to think before we react. To not take things at face value. Verify sources, assess credibility of viral stories and do our own research.
If we are concerned our feed is an echo chamber make a conscious effort to follow different viewpoints. Social media is a tool that allows us to do this. A hammer that can be used to knock a nail or a head. If our humanity is threatened it is by the our use of the tool not the tool itself.
[EDIT: Fixed incorrect URL for the Buzzfeed article]