The revelation that Russia placed thousands of Facebook ads during the 2016 presidential campaign in Trump’s favor is disturbing on many levels. Leaving all the legal and political aspects of it to the experts, we are still left with the disturbing thought that we’re much more vulnerable to propaganda and radicalization than we thought, both technologically and ideologically.
Did the word “radicalization” grab you? I hope so. In the last two years, some people have come to believe that government’s lies don’t matter, that some neo-Nazis are fine people, that “others” come to the US to undermine democracy, and that news organizations are the enemies of the people. These are radicalization efforts. They’re not caused by social media, but they’re greatly augmented by it because of its pervasive nature. Dog whistles have become bull horns to the masses.
On the other hand, we are also reminded of how “social” social media is: how it inspires us to provide sympathy and aid in times of international crises, and joy in times of achievement and celebration. The collective is powerful, indeed. And on a personal level, sharing and self-expression is truly empowering and liberating on such a big stage. Everyone can have their fifteen minutes of glory.
But social media is also used for bullying, allowing us to give kicks in the gut anonymously to those with greater perceived status or with far lower perceived status. We can stick it to them with impunity, gratifying us in the short term, and depriving us of our humanity in the long term. It’s a major cause of suicides, now having become the 3rd leading cause of death among teens.
But it’s not only teens. It’s us. I see it on social media every day: rants in all caps, snide remarks, and sarcastic asides. We have become unleashed.
Should we then be leashed? Some people think so. There is at least one movement afoot to place regulations on social media, to filter out fake news, and to abolish bullying. That may come in time. But for now, it really comes down to us – thinking critically about what’s being presented to us, and rejecting all forms of intimidation. And not spewing it, ourselves.