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.
The Pew report found people reluctant to share opposing ideas in the social media environment:
The average Facebook user (someone who uses the site a few times per day) was half as likely as other people to say they would be willing to voice their opinion with friends at a restaurant. If they felt that their online Facebook network agreed with their views on this issue, their willingness to speak out in a face-to-face discussion with friends was higher, although they were still only 0.74 times as likely to voice their opinion.
The typical Twitter user (who uses the site a few times per day) is 0.24 times as likely to share their opinions with colleagues at work as an internet user who does not use Twitter. However, Twitter users who felt that their online Twitter followers shared their opinion were less reserved: They were only 0.66 times less likely to speak up than other internet users.
You can read many blogs and comments on other platforms explaining why users have left these particular platforms for others (like LinkedIn and Google Plus) where they are not subject to the sort of attack (and often personal attack) that frequently often happens on these two.
SNS platforms themselves expedite the immediate, unthinking, angry, and often vindictive retort by making it easy to comment and share without necessarily taking any time to think through the response. Emotional reaction becomes the norm, not intellectual. This has a dampening effect on any discussion or debate and quickly leads to personal attacks and insults. People who feel they are being abused or insulted will not participate, nor will those (as the study suggests) who do not feel their views are shared.
(All of this goes hand in hand with the general decay of manners and mores in our modern culture, coupled with the rise of entitlement and narcissism; a topic oft opined about by those of my generation who were brought up with different standards and a firm belief in civil debate and proper manners. There is also a new field of study called cyberpsychology which examines online behaviour and our uncivil digital life.)
US News reported:
… 47 percent of Americans under the age of 35 have been abused online or know somebody who has. Of the respondents who said they had been harassed, 57 were percent women and 43 percent were men…. Sexual harassment is the most common form of online abuse at 44 percent, followed by 28 percent for abuse about professional ability, 23 percent based on race and 14 percent based on homophobia, as measured by the survey. Frequency of abuse occurred fairly evenly for each racial demographic or political affiliation, while being a college graduate decreased the chances of sexual harassment. Approximately 63 percent of non-college graduates reported sexual harassment online.
This doesn’t mean social media isn’t being or can’t be used for political or social engagement: it is a potent force for civic engagement and has a large audience (as this earlier Pew research survey tells). However, ideologies and personal entitlement both tend to polarize things in unproductive ways that the report suggests disenfranchise and discourage more moderate or less aggressive people from participating.
You can see that effect on all levels: national to local. Most local politicians (and many municipal staff) will not participate personally on social media because they are well aware of the negative experience those of us who participate have had in some areas. Federal and provincial politicians who use SNS are often heavily scripted as to what they can say or how they can engage people to avoid the inevitable backlash and attack from off-the-cuff comments.
The Republic-3.0 site reported:
…Americans also think that social media networks could take a more active role in reining in harassment. For example, 75 percent agree that suspending user accounts of those who have harassed others online would be very or somewhat successful at combating online harassment, and 64 percent think that creating an online code of conduct would be somewhat or very successful. And even though 62 percent of people think that laws against online harassment are not strong enough or even nonexistent, our research shows that Americans expect more from social media networks to protect them from the growing perceived threat of online harassment.
What all social media platforms and networks need is solid, effective and consistent moderation. Good forums and blogs have some sort of moderation to keep the conversations civil and to close threads when things get contentious. Moderators watch in-game chat channels in online games like World of Tanks or World of Warcraft to ensure things don’t get too far out of hand. Why not Facebook and Twitter?
We need to save social media from the trolls and the seal-clubbers so that it can fulfill its potential for social engagement and civil debate
*The date of the origin of social media is often debated – was it 1999? 2002? 03? 04? Generally these are all references to the launch of a particular platform like Friendster or Facebook. However, social media existed long before that: I ran a BBS on an Atari 800 in the mid-1980s, and was a sysop on Compuserve forums after that. I date the origin of social media from that time before the internet.
** The term “troll” has been seconded from mythology to describe “…a person that just really hates what you have to say and dedicates an unusual amount of time to arguing against your points, posting inflammatory comments, or writing ill of you or your website.” Trolls exist in all SNS platforms, national to local. It may be indications of a deeper psychological malady.
Webygeeks notes: “These people usually attack you and your company relentlessly and sometimes may start cyber war against your online community members. By terminology, haters are most commonly referred to as “trolls” online. One of their main purposes is to divide the community by giving out malicious information on your social media profiles. Unfortunately, trolls are inevitable so you must come prepared for them and their vicious attacks.”
Robert Weller writes: “A troll is a person online (mostly on social media) who wants to trigger emotional reactions of their victims by spamming senseless comments and insults. A troll is NOT somebody with a different opinion or somebody you do not wish to read your articles. The former often start interesting discussions that give you the opportunity of defending your opinion and show off your knowledge on a certain topic.”
The Urban Dictionary also describes a blog troll as: “A pathetic and moronic person who maintains a blog with an unhealthy obsessive-compulsive drive, especially angsty goths (sorry to all the likeable goths out there). The content of their blogs usually includes events that no sane person would care about. ” It also adds a secondary definition: “A depraved individual who sits in front of a computer all day and posts flames of an idiotic or pseudo-intellectual nature on public forums and private websites.”
We all have had an encounter with that sort of person, haven’t we?