After the Cambridge Analytica scandal, many people are rethinking the role of social media in their lives.
Is it really a tool to help expand our horizons, or does it do just the opposite? Is our world getting bigger, or is it getting much, much smaller?
What happened with Cambridge Analytica is a microcosm of the potential dangers that social media presents. Basically, data was illegally acquired from personal Facebook accounts and was used to initiate targeted ad campaigns based on people’s political affiliations.
This allowed users to go further and further down the rabbit hole of whatever ideology they most identified with—until any other political viewpoint became virtually unintelligible or outright reprehensible.
As concerning as this is—specifically the fact that Cambridge Analytica was used to influence the democratic process without anyone’s awareness—I don’t believe this phenomenon of data harvesting and artificially created social media bubbles is something entirely new or reserved for right-wing political agendas.
I notice all of the time how polarized the political domain has become, how difficult conversations have become between the left and the right (or even between people of similar political backgrounds), and unfailingly, this seems to always be promoted and perpetuated by social media to break people with wide-ranging views into exclusive online subcommunities.
It is in the very nature of social media to narrow down complex viewpoints and attitudes for the most easily accessible consumption, and over time this turns into a relatively unhealthy pattern. Say you have a generally left-wing temperament with more socially democratic policies (nothing wrong with that), and as you follow pages that tend to your ideology and worldview, more and more pages pop up that further validate your worldview. Before you know it, the only stuff you ever see online is fairly radical propaganda in comparison to your previously tempered outlook.
This is how ideologues are created.
If we are so utterly alienated from the views of others who hold different political positions, these people will begin to feel like complete enemies, especially when we hear them speak their minds. We can see this happening every day—left, right, and center.
Does this really come as a surprise to anyone? Antifa and the alt-right didn’t just arise out of nowhere. These groups did not just bubble up naturally out of political tensions; people have held different views in this country forever. In the 50s, it was relatively common to refer to someone as a conservative Democrat or a liberal Republican, because it was common knowledge that there were overlaps between different political views. Nowadays, you’ll see none of that. If you’re not progressive enough, then you’re a fascist. If you don’t like Donald Trump, you’re a socialist who upholds Mao’s China and Stalinist Russia as shining examples of how society should operate.
It’s out of control.
What I’d like to see is people recognizing that those with different views are usually coming from similarly genuine places. And that’s where the strange responsibility of social media comes in.
Many people wanted to delete their Facebook accounts after Cambridge Analytica, but I don’t see that as the most effective response. The right response to me is to acknowledge that special interest groups are always going to try and hijack our views, so it’s our responsibility to use social media as a platform for free dialogue with people we may or may not agree with rather than go down politically charged rabbit holes.
Look at what people are actually saying and try to understand where they are coming from. If we see a troubling viewpoint, let’s see if we can engage without getting overly emotional. Find out what people think, rather than immediately putting them in a box.
When we place people who don’t agree with us under a negative label, we’re helping to escalate an already sensitive situation. And these types of escalations can lead to anger, violence, and even genocide. While I don’t think we’re anywhere near that point yet, the political divide in our country is allowing us to create enemies out of people who probably agree with us on some fundamental level about what we’d like to see in society.
The responsibility we all have with social media is to not be reactionary a**holes.
If we care about an issue, let’s use social media to find lots of different sources and stop endlessly seeking out social brownie points by playing to the crowd.
Use it to inquire.
Use it to ask questions.
Use it to understand where the hell people are coming from.
Maybe from there, we can begin to cultivate a holistic and nuanced worldview that takes many factors into account, instead of just one or two.
To create a better world, we must foster the individual—because the world is no more than a vast group of distinct individuals. When we allow situations to escalate, the group doesn’t just suffer, the individuals in the group suffer.
Imagine how great it would be if the majority of people were thoughtful, articulate, and genuinely cared about the issues they brought up. That would be something, eh? Right now, it feels like all we’re getting is hyperbole, poorly laid out ideas, and misdirected emotions.
It’s just not good enough.
It’s clear that the public is being targeted into playing identity politics, and it is our responsibility not to play this little game anymore—no matter how momentarily satisfying it is. This process is breaking down our culture into opposing ideological groups that can’t get along with each other, even if they could get along with each other under different circumstances.
But historically, enemies can’t engage with each other mindfully, and if we care at all about moving toward a better world, we can’t allow this process to divide us any longer.
Author: Samuel Kronen
Editor: Nicole Cameron
Copy Editor: Yoli Ramzzina