When blogging and social media started to explode in popularity, it held a great promise: it would give a voice to the masses. Where previously there were gatekeepers in traditional media channels who controlled whose opinions could be published or broadcast, the internet meant that anyone with an internet connection could publish and voice out their thoughts and people would be all smart and there would be lots of intelligent discussion and it would be great.
And that did kind of happen – there was now a wealth of information and opinions and discussions online – but people being people there was a lot of silly, frivolous stuff too. Memes, jokes, 4chan, and all that. And that was all fine and great.
But there was some dark stuff too. Spammers and scammers and whatnot trying to take advantage of people. And more recently with all the political activity it seemed like it had come to a head. Lies, damn lies and propaganda. It had always been happening before, but now the scales were larger and the stakes were higher.
Instead of discussing opposing points of view, people joined social media groups supporting one side or another, discussions giving way to echo chambers and crowds castigating people who didn’t share their views. Online trolls were paid to harass opposing personalities and reinforce their benefactor’s propaganda. Outright false information was spread using social media.
And it was our fault too. We seek out those opinions that feed our biases and don’t bother questioning their veracity. Many times we don’t even bother reading past the clickbait headlines and make judgments without all the information because who has time for all that context right? Many acted like fanatics where their side could do no wrong and the other side were demons who could do no right.
A friend of mine, disgusted with the outright lies and propaganda of the opposing camps, has started censoring comments he disagrees with on his posts. I felt that stifling discussion was counterproductive, but he insisted that in this new era, a wide variety of approaches was necessary, with both moderates maintaining balanced views and encouraging discussion; and fanatics pushing aggressively to counter the opposing propaganda. Perhaps it was true, but it lessened my hopes that we would be able to raise the standard of online discussion to a higher level.
When I started writing this post the original title was “The Unfulfilled Promise of Social Media”, but I realized the adjective there wasn’t appropriate. If anything, the promise of democratized discussion has been completely fulfilled – I had just forgotten that democracy did not necessarily mean people would be smarter or more enlightened. Just like in real-life we are vulnerable to charlatans and demagogues and lies and propaganda.
All the more reason we need to be vigilant with what we read, share, comment and post online. We need to give adequate consideration to opposing points of view, to weigh the facts against speculation. We need to learn and apply critical thinking, and to teach other people to do so. We should strive to elevate discussions to higher levels (although it can often be tiring to do so!). It is an ongoing struggle for me to improve and be critical of my own thinking, but I believe it to be a worthy cause.