Has social media divided us?

Published 4:51 pm Tuesday, October 15, 2019

short rows header

Last week’s column about the sometimes malevolent use of the internet dealt with international intrigue, but the potential for harm rests much closer to home.

Social media has offered communication possibilities that never before existed. It has allowed people to share their news with a broad audience. Families and friends share Johnny’s successes and Susie’s challenges. Having a bad day? Tell a thousand of your closest friends and someone may sympathize — or not.

Subscribe to our free email newsletter

Get the latest news sent to your inbox

These new communications tools also allow us to voice our opinions about anything, any time. Whatever pops into our minds we can immediately express far and wide. But that’s where the down side of social media has come into being as well.

Social media has driven a divided society further into corners, has increased our anger with every fiery post or tweet. Posters and tweeters have learned that by expressing indignation at the slightest provocation, they can garner far bigger responses than when they express rational, reasoned opinions. And so, the language of social media has become radicalized and, as it has, the anger has grown.

A study by NPR recently looked at a vast array of social media postings and found that “Anger draws internet clicks, which is to say that many people now have a motive or even a business model for getting you mad.”

But social media users should be aware that, believe it or not, they are actually responsible for what they write, and it can be costly to write irresponsibly.

A North Carolina woman learned that the hard way. She wrote a disparaging post about a coworker, implying that she had a drinking problem. She didn’t name the coworker, but it was apparently pretty easy to figure out who it was.

The aggrieved person sued her for libel and won. It cost the Facebook poster $500,000. That’s a lot of money to pay for being nasty.

Just what is this “libel” business? Well, it’s actually pretty simple. If something you publish, i.e. post it or tweet it, is proven to be false and causes injury to a person’s character, then that’s potentially defamation.

The law can be a lot more complicated than that, but that’s the essence of the matter, and people, quite frankly, commit libel in social media posts quite regularly.

The problem has become so prevalent that Facebook now has something called a “Defamation Reporting Form” to be used by people who feel they have been defamed on Facebook and want to report it to the company. It’s frankly incredible that it has gotten to that point.

It’s also unnecessary. Important public issues deserve serious debate, and social media is an excellent avenue for that. But when civility is abandoned, useful debate ends. Most rational people step away, often shaking their heads and refusing to participate. When that happens, only the screamers remain.

There’s a great deal of research going into the problem today, and some people are trying to bring a bit of sanity to the table. Something called the Greater Good Magazine, published at UC Berkeley (Yeah, I know. That’s a bunch of liberals) has offered some pretty sound advice.

In an article about the anger on social media, the magazine has suggested that writers avoid stereotyping people, that they trying walking in the shoes of their opponents and that they make an effort to approach politics with a bit less anger.

Liberal pablum? Of course it is. But it’s not a new approach. It was first found in another source book. There was something about doing unto others as you would have them do unto you, if I recall correctly.

If you’d like to read the Greater Good article on avoiding the social media outrage trap, you’ll find it at https://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/howtoavoidthesocialmediaoutrage_trap.