OPINION: Social Media Is Killing Thoughtful Citizenship, But There Is A Solution

Author: Joel Searby
Created: 25 September, 2018
Updated: 17 October, 2022
3 min read

Social media is killing thoughtful citizenship. I see it and feel it every time I’m online. You do too.

I get it. I really do. It’s so easy to get sucked into the vacuum of short bursts of Twitter snark, epic and ridiculous Facebook comment threads or the blissful ignorance of a filtered Instagram feed that takes you to some other, beautiful place where there is no politics — only iced coffee on vintage wood tables and sun-kissed, smiling people.

But none of these tells the whole story. They’re all, at best, a small glimpse of a much more complex reality. At worst they are patently false and dangerously misleading. The truth is, the world is really complicated. There are over 325 million people in the United States alone. Do we think we are going to deal with our enormous issues through social media? Let me answer that for you: no.

Can you imagine trying to abolish slavery today? What if only white people had access to social media and the debate was as fever-pitched as anything on Twitter today? What if during WWII people who supported Hitler in America had the ability to amplify, confuse and lie that is so easy today? I shudder to run through the litany of culture-shaping moments that may never have developed into culture-changing movements if the American people were as shallow or as easily influenced as we are today.

Proponents of social media will preach loudly of the virtues. “Everyone has a voice now!” They’ll say. I’m certainly a fan of people having a “voice,” whatever that has come to mean. But we have failed miserably to ask, and to demand of ourselves as citizens, what our responsibility is in using our voice.

What really worries me is not that people have a voice, or that they use it in this way. What worries me is the corrosive, dumbing effect this is having. We are engaging in really, really tough issues with only the slightest bit of thought. Usually firing back quickly and rarely with all the information.

Every argument, every disagreement, every valid concern devolves into a online outrage-fest devoid of nuance, thoughtfulness and, too often, the truth. We’ve got to build a new path in American politics and culture and I believe one important issue is more thoughtful engagement with social media. We cannot ignore it on the one hand or blindly allow it to influence us on the other.

So here’s one simple suggestion:

We must ask good questions, first of ourselves.

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When you see something on social media, don’t just consume it mindlessly. Ask yourself:

  1. Is this true?
  2. How can I find out?
  3. What is the other side of this issue?
  4. Does someone have an incentive to distort this for their own interests?
  5. Who do I know personally that understands this issue and will give me an honest view?
  6. Who do I know that disagrees with this and will share their reasons why?
  7. What is the value in my responding?
  8. How can I add constructively to this conversation?

This is the social media version of “seek first to understand, then be understood” usually attributed to Steven Covey from his Seven Habits of Highly Effective People.

Listen, charting a new path is hard. When you’re treading new ground, clearing out the underbrush and finding a new route, it’s never going to be easy. This new path cannot be ideologically homogeneous  —  tribal and segregated in the ways that social media tends to divide us. Instead, it must be diverse in every way.

The magic of America has been our ability to take a radically diverse (and ever-diversifying) culture and work it out. We’ve made a ton of mistakes to be sure. Entire races have been oppressed. Lots of injustice of all kinds has been perpetrated. But look where we’ve come in 200 years compared to the previous 2,000 before that. My goodness.

Maybe something so big as making a new way in American politics actually could start as small as how we interact online. Think about it.

Editor's Note: This article originally published on Medium, and may have been modified slightly for publication on IVN.

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