A recent poll done by Pew Research reiterated what I’ve been saying for the past two years: social media (SM) doesn’t necessary facilitate social debate and in fact may be stifling it. Discussion on many SM platforms tends to reinforce existing beliefs because in general only those who feel their beliefs are shared by their circle of “friends” or followers will express them. It’s called the “spiral of silence.”
The Pew report noted:
…social media did not provide new forums for those who might otherwise remain silent to express their opinions and debate issues. Further, if people thought their friends and followers in social media disagreed with them, they were less likely to say they would state their views… Previous research has shown that when people decide whether to speak out about an issue, they rely on reference groups—friendships and community ties—to weigh their opinion relative to their peers… Those who do not feel that their Facebook friends or Twitter followers agree with their opinion are more likely to self-censor their views…
When social media emerged as a concept or platform that could be labelled* it was hailed as the new tool for social engagement, the panacea for flagging social interaction in many spheres like politics, education and government. And for a while, it was.
But that proved not to be the case any more than previously existing platforms (forums and list servers). In fact, for many who embraced it, social media proved more of a liability (think Anthony Weiner).
Blogger Raed El-Younsi blames the technology as at least partially responsible for the way we interact online. He wrote:
The internet gives us an unprecedented opportunity to understand one another. And yet anyone familiar with internet “discussion” boards knows that NOISE, group think and personal attacks can drown out most attempts at constructive dialogue. (For an extreme example, try discussing politics or religion in the YouTube comments.)
Similarly, the recent U.S. Government shutdown is a visible symptom of a much deeper trend: the polarization of our global society, online and offline…
Going into online discussion boards often means going into “hostile” territory and, as such, it can be a risky proposition. People often resort to attacks out of boredom, to be seen, or to “rally the troops” and win the numbers game. Strategically, our options are usually fight or flight – aggression or avoidance.
I have written in the past that it’s equally because we see the Internet as ours and respond to things online as if they were a threat to our personal property. It’s our computer, our modem, our house, our phone or cable bill, our wireless router… of course it’s our internet, too. And we respond to anyone who dissents or offers different ideas as we would a home invader or trespasser: with aggression. (Read the signs of narcissism here: listening only to dismiss; feeling the rules don’t apply to you; quick to anger; refusal to take responsibility; inability to take criticism.)
The notion of digital democracy at first suggested a great step forward. After all, what’s to dislike about free speech, freedom of expression, free exchange of ideas and open debate without borders? That quickly proved naive. The new social media proved an easier platform for the expressions of ideology than an exchange of ideas – just as the old forms had been. And in these situations, people who offered alternate or conflicting positions often found themselves denounced, attacked, insulted and vilified; their ideas or comments drowned out in a sea of vituperation. Instead of civil debate or an intelligent exchange of ideas, often these threads degenerated into a race to see who could type the nastiest rejoinder soonest.
One recent poll suggests 25% of Americans have been harassed, bullied or threatened online and 62% of those had been harassed on Facebook. Some writers have suggested countermeasures, but these seem not to have gained much traction yet:
While keeping in mind that this is a self-reporting survey, the findings nevertheless illustrate the seriousness of online harassment and attacks, and the fact that people are increasingly becoming disenchanted with the negative behavior they experience.
We know online harassment and attacks are a huge social problem. We know they are a huge social GLOBAL problem. And it’s up to all of us to help turn things around.
While the steps needed to make this happen aren’t simply or easy, and also won’t solve the problem overnight, they will be concrete actions towards creating a positive cultural shift in online communication.
Free speech in social media does not come with any sense of responsibility, just narcissistic entitlement. People feel they have the right to comment on anything, in any manner, for any reason, regardless of their involvement in the issue, understanding of the idea, or respect for the feelings and rights of the others. Look what happens when some “hot-button” issues are broached – look at the angry back-and-forth over gun control or abortion.
Strangers can enter the fray, too, and anonymous posters can sling mud and spew invective at the original poster. It is difficult enough to argue with people you know or work with but generally much more polite and engaging; arguing with violent strangers or angry cowards hiding their identities through pseudonyms quickly makes people reluctant to engage.
Compounding it is the sheer number of people who can participate almost simultaneously: the confusion of multiple comments can turn what began as a discussion into a cacophony. A mob mentality that takes over and users on one side gang up to batter the outsider or dissenter into submission to the group mind – it’s called “seal clubbing.”
When ideology enters the fray – particularly political or religious – there is often no real civil debate on social media, but there is clearly intolerance as opposing sides batter away at each other.
And it doesn’t seem to be getting better: the Pew report found people are more willing to self-censor themselves on social media than among friends and co-workers. Based on earlier studies done by the organization, this suggests to me that the initial enthusiasm with which many people embraced social media has been curbed by the actions/words of the users themselves.