The Problem with Social Media

With today’s “social media,” opinions and frustrations pull some people together while pushing others away. The net effect is a greater polarization of society, not less.

Facebook, Twitter, and the like divide us; because of our human nature, they foster factions and dissonance, not union and compromise.

Social media has also changed the mechanics of Free Speech and, thereby, its effect upon your neighbors, and even who those “neighbors” are. It used to be you had to carry a soap box to a crowded location where you could then pontificate to whatever crowd might gather. In practice, you might draw a few dozen listeners. Depending on your abilities at oration and persuasion, you might gain nods of approval from some, arguments from others, but most likely silence from the majority.

But with social media, you no longer need to find a public space, gather listeners, and then put yourself “up there” for all to criticize. Today with social media, anyone can login through the free computer at the public library or in the common room at the prison and, more or less anonymously, spout vitriol and promote stratification to groups including “public,” “friends,” or just to specific individuals.

And also unlike speaking in public, propagating your words outward to people outside of the immediate audience is much, much easier. You don’t need to convince others to stand up in public and repeat your words. With social media, a simple click of the mouse does it.

As such, social media makes it easier for our finely-nuanced differences to spread and, each in its turn, draw a fractious set of followers. Instead of a few outspoken orators bending the tide of history, social media lets every Tom, Dick, and Harriett carry our thoughts in hundreds of directions.

Rather than coalescing to a small number of tolerable ideas, we break up into tiny, some would say, extreme factions.

According to an article requiring a login to read at the Wall Street Journal, Facebook executives have known of this effect since it was pointed out to them in 2018.

For non-subscribers, The Verge reports on the WSJ article saying, “An internal Facebook report presented to executives in 2018 found that the company was well aware that its product, specifically its recommendation engine, stoked divisiveness and polarization …”

The analysis goes on to describe one Facebook executive and the changes he has driven to counteract this effect. But the article also notes that his purpose was to retain subscribers in the conservative camp thereby preventing the loss of subscribers. There was no egalitarian purpose other than bolstering the business.

Some have claimed that social media provides the mechanism to let us “come together.” In fact, however, Facebook’s research proves the opposite. It divides and alienates us from each other.

Perhaps there’s something to be said for lugging your own soapbox into the public square rather than having millions of them set up and primed for the click of a mouse.

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