December 29, 2016

Social Media Discourse: Shouting Into the Void

A protester holding a placard in Tahrir Square
A protester holding a placard in Tahrir Square referring to Facebook and Twitter, acknowledging the role played by social media during the 2011 Egyptian Revolution. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Ever have one of those moments where you feel like you are seeing something familiar in a way you've never quite seen it before? Social media can certainly be a potent force for change. I don't think there is any question about that. It can also be a great way to learn about what is happening in the world. "Fake news" aside, we are generally better informed because of it. And yet, it recently hit me that there is something seriously wrong with how people are using social media these days: it often seems to be little more than people insulting each other over the most trivial of disagreements.

I cannot use Twitter or Facebook without seeing atheists calling religious believers all sorts of names (e.g., idiot, moron, dumbass, deluded fool). Of course, I see plenty of religious believers calling atheists names too. This is by no means specific to questions of religion. In fact, it seems to be even worse when it comes to politics. I cannot use social media without seeing liberals calling conservatives names and seeing conservatives calling liberals names. The names vary, of course, but they are impossible to miss.

Whatever nuance might have once been present on social media largely seems to have been replaced by polarization, tribalism, and perpetual outrage. It often seems that social media is used for little else. The tribalism, name calling, and outrage have replaced anything like conversation, discussion, or even civil disagreement. We aren't even talking to one another as much as we are shouting into the void, listening for an echo, and then becoming outraged when we hear anything else.

When I see this stuff unfolding over and over again on social media, I do not feel angry about it. At least, not anymore. I still find it disappointing, but I am slowly getting used to it. I have started to unfollow those have nothing to offer besides insulting those who dare hold views that differ from their own, but it seems to be increasingly difficult to find reasonable people. Much of the time, I find that what I am reading on social media comes down to something as simple as this:
We disagree on an issue that is important to me, and therefore, you are [insert insult of choice here].
If you believe something different from what I believe about gods, you are an idiot. If you favor a different politician than I do, you are an idiot. If you have a difference of opinion on practically anything, you are an idiot. Essentially, everyone who disagrees with me is an idiot because they disagree with me. And by "idiot," what they usually seem to mean is that the other party is not just stupid but morally inferior to the point of being evil. And that is important because one can then feel justified in treating the other party poorly.

The people who behave like this must believe that they are infallible, perfect beings of some sort. How else could they be so quick to dismiss anyone who holds opinions different from their own? Why else would they be so quick to turn on someone merely for having a different perspective? Is it such a shock that someone with different life experience might have formed some different beliefs?

If I am going to feel discouraged about the state and future of humanity, I think this is a part of why I'll do so. If I decide to scale back the time I spend on social media, this will definitely be part of why I'll do so. Perhaps the mistake is mine and I expected too much from those who extol the virtues of reason and freethought in their Twitter bios. Needless to say, it is discouraging.