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The Cultural Catastrophe of Social Media

In a recent piece at The Bulwark, Sonny Bunch puts into words a sentiment sensed by many for years, namely, that what once made social media so great has now made it unbearable. According to Bunch, social media’s original design as platforms for “debate culture” has descended into a toxic landscape of information silos where arguments are “dismissed in favor of agreement.” 

Rather than a boundless world of information and opinions, social media now serves to blind users from reality. 

This sorry situation, however, is precisely what Emory University professor Mark Bauerlein predicted in his 2008 book, The Dumbest Generation, How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future. How tragically right he was.

Today, social media is used far less for reasoned debate than as the vehicle for outraged mobs to launch vicious fusillades against their perceived enemies. Some targets of this vehemence are large organizations and companies able to withstand such attacks. Often, however, victims of social media lynch mobs are individuals who knowingly or by chance have traversed the social media crosshairs of the Left and expressed views at odds with the prevailing social media orthodoxy.  

In spite of the potentially life-changing consequences of becoming the latest “Central Park Karen,” or merely someone wrongly accused of being a “Nazi,” such nuances are lost on these online mobs, as their aim is not to change minds or debunk misinformation, but to destroy their targets personally, emotionally, and financially – all while taking glee in the ruin they cause. This internet misbehavior is fueled by hashtags that facilitate coordination and aided by secret algorithms designed to keep users hooked by feeding them aggregated content catering to their preferred tastes and world views. 

Whether tech companies could have (or, should have) seen this coming, they are responsible for building the content silos now tearing our culture apart. This raises an important question: Is social media’s descent a reflection of society’s debasement, or a catalyst accelerating it? Actually, both.

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Two of social media biggest failures – tribalism and confirmation bias – existed long before the rise of Facebook and Twitter, as traits of the human condition. Individuals naturally gravitate toward like-minded people and possess an instinctual skepticism of ideas and information different from theirs. Traditional liberal arts education was designed specifically to undermine that innate skepticism, and provide young minds with the intellectual tools to withstand the challenge of competing ideas and to unashamedly defend one’s own views.

The demise of traditional liberal arts education in favor of leftist groupthink, coupled with the ascendancy of social media as a way to block out disfavored ideas, has resulted in barriers to independent thought and reasoned debate that make it now nearly impossible to overcome.  

In the pressure cooker of social media, bad ideas and bad behaviors are not checked, but rather rewarded with greater engagement, in a sociopathic feedback system used by its purveyors to create addiction to their services.

To make matters worse, traditional alternatives to social media’s distortive effect on information and reality, including the mainstream media, politicians, and religious leaders, appear to be following in social media’s footsteps, with fear-mongering and hyperbolic rhetoric increasingly used to manipulate followers. We see this dangerous phenomenon everywhere. 

For example, notwithstanding the fact that trust in the media has sunk to an all-time low, news outlets constantly peddle fear and even outright lies, because doing so brings social media “clicks” and boosts ad revenue. Substance and truth are nothing more than flotsam, to the point where misinformation spreads six-times faster than the truth on Twitter.

In the midst of all this, politicians, although fully cognizant that radical polarization is ripping our country apart, continue using the very same overheated rhetoric on which social media thrives, because it brings in campaign dollars. Even religious leaders prey on fears of a culture in decline because, sadly, it strengthens their congregants’ faith .  .  .  and increases tithes and offerings. 

State legislative attempts to rein in social media, well-intentioned as they are (such as the bill recently signed by Florida Gov. de Santis), are virtually guaranteed to be successfully challenged in federal courts, based mainly on the many First Amendment precedents affirming the primacy of public “speech” over government limitation. That task, however, is made far easier thanks to so-called Section 230 of the 1996 “Communications Decency Act,” which treats social media companies as simple “platforms” rather than what they increasingly have morphed into – publishers with their own goals and agendas. 

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The long-foreseen dangers of social media are now upon us. Whether we survive what we have sown is an open question.

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