Social media has had a net positive effect on humanity. Even the most contrarian Luddite should admit this. But let’s not lose sight of its many pitfalls and shortcomings. The problem is not only that it is a waste of time or that it leads to vanity, but it is also dividing people into echo chambers: ideological communities with their own sets of facts.
It used to be the case that one would usually go all day without meeting anyone else who held their exact same social and political beliefs. In most situations it was said to be bad form to even broach these subjects. This is still the case it public life. But the online world is very different. Now almost anyone can put their honest, deeply-held views out into the world and experience multiple people agreeing with them.
This has resulted in people being more confident in their beliefs. In an insulated, sealed-off group, beliefs can be reinforced and contradictory information can be discarded as long as everyone in the group is comfortable with that, and because of the natural reward system inherent in human psychology, that is normally the case. If a single person has information that contradicts the beliefs of 100 people, those 100 egos are not likely to smoothly integrate the new information into their belief systems. In the best case scenario, it will start an argument and some of the 100 will come around to accepting the individual’s information. But it is just as likely that the individual would be mocked, ridiculed, and ignored. It is irrelevant how accurate the information is; the only deciding factors at play are the strength of the egos involved and their level of intellectual integrity.
The word ‘post-truth’ was the Oxford Dictionary’s Word of the Year in 2018. Wikipedia says ‘post-truth politics’ “is a political culture in which debate is framed largely by appeals to emotion disconnected from the details of policy, and by the repeated assertion of talking points to which factual rebuttals are ignored.” It is not an entirely new phenomenon but it’s prevalence has massively increased since the advent of social media.
To say that people are living in their own bubbles with their own sets of facts is not an exaggeration. I’ll demonstrate this with a couple of personal anecdotes; I was recently banned from two Facebook groups for posting indisputably factual information.
The first was a group called Radical Capitalists. It consists of mostly Ancaps of the Stefan Molyneux variety. I consider Anarcho-Capitalism to be one of the most repugnant ideologies to currently be trending on the interweb and I like to keep an eye on it. One day someone posted this meme.
The unanimous response to it were things like “Oh my god! What I moron!” and “How the fuck did she graduate college with a degree in finance?” In the actual interview quoted, AOC was asked the same old propaganda question of “how are we going to pay for it?” AOC then sited the Koch Brothers funded study that determined that Medicare For All would save the country $2 trillion dollars over the next ten years. She went on to say, “How do you pay for something that is more affordable? You just pay for it.” She actually understated her case by quoting the right-wing study; some studies have found that America’s current healthcare system will cost $49 trillion in the next decade. Assuming the now ubiquitous $32 trillion Medicare For All price tag is accurate, that would indicate $17 trillion in savings. I responded -as best as I can remember- “She is 100% correct. America currently spends 17% of it’s GDB on healthcare: by far the most in the world. If you remove the parasitic middlemen (insurance companies) and negotiate cheaper drug costs, as all other developed countries do, the cost of healthcare would go down. If you were allowed to buy cars directly from the producer instead of from a dealership, would you expect it to be more expensive? No! Because cutting out the middleman brings down the cost. Take a moment of silence, turn of Fox, and let it sink in. It’s just common sense.” In hindsight maybe the “turn of Fox” part was a bit condescending, but the general message of my post cannot seriously be debated or falsified. So of course people responded with ad hominems like “You just wanna steal our hard-earned money, but you’re too much of a pansy to do it yourself, so you want the government to do it for you. Go stick a chainsaw up your ass!” and “Get out of my country you fucking tankie.” I was swiftly banned from the group. The propaganda they had been bombarded with for years was too strong, and their egos would not allow them to publicly admit fault. They must have seen the logic in my post and felt very threatened by it. People will defend their ideas like their homes. I can’t find any other logical explanation for the anger and vitriol in their responses. Hopefully I was successful in planting seeds in at least a couple of minds.
The second group I got banned from was called something like Donal Trump: The Resistance. You can imagine what type of authoritarian, right-wing Democrat, McCarthyite nonsense goes on in this group. The general worldview of its members seems to be ‘The world was perfect before January 2017, then Trump came and ruined it all. Trump is an agent of Russia. And the US government should be able to keep any secrets it wants from the US people, and anyone who reveals these secrets, but especially Assange, should be locked up with the key thrown away.’
One day, a rare dissident posted something in favor of Bernie Sanders. The group’s moderator responded with something like “He could have endorsed Hillary after he lost and encouraged his supporters to vote for her, but instead he attacked her and split the Democratic party and gave us Trump. This is not going to turn into a Bernie bro group.” Obviously, the fact is that Bernie DID endorse Hillary and encourage his supporters to vote for her. (much to disappointment) I simply posted this picture with the question “Why do you have to lie?”
She could have then said something like “Oh, that’s right. I forgot about that. My bad.” But of course she just responded to my post with a laugh and banned me. The scary thing is, her post got many likes and almost no push back. How can such a factually inaccurate post be acceptable? Obviously, this is not an environment of healthy political discourse. Again, they are living in a land of alternative facts. In their group, it is considered a fact that Bernie Sanders did everything he could to insure that Queen Hillary was not thrones, and he is up there with Vladimir Putin in terms of people who are responsible for giving us Trump. They saw my post as a threat to their narrative, not an opportunity to grow and expand their understanding.
I’m not posting this detailed play-by-play because I’m bitter about being banned from a couple of stupid Facebook groups or because I think I’ve been seriously wronged and want justice. This is a genuinely worrying social phenomenon, and I’m not quite sure what to think of it. We are in uncharted waters with this global experiment called social media. Never before have people around the world been so connected. Our access to information is unprecedented. People should be better informed than ever, but in many cases it is the opposite.
There are people who think that all Democrats are in favor of open borders even though not a single one is. People who think Ilhan Omar is in favor of sharia law. QAnoners who think that Trump is fighting a secret battle against the elite pedophile class and John McCain was secretly tried and executed. People who think Trump has been a Soviet agent since the 80s.
These groups don’t just have differing opinions. They are living in alternate realities. Realities are made of narrative; they are summoned forth by the stories we tell, and if everyone around you agrees that a certain story is true, that becomes your reality. Most people are not equipped with the adequate critical-thinking abilities to responsibly navigate social media, and I only see the problem getting worse in the near future.