Tweets and Facebook comments present opinions without context, totally distorted. When you read them, they can make you feel you’re not alone in your feelings and opinions. You can be connected to others who have the same interests or illnesses and disabilities. All this can be good, when you’re talking about loneliness and depression, illnesses or having been a victim of bullying and crime. More often, though,social media works to actually increase anxiety, fear, anger and isolation. It makes bad people feel stronger and emboldened in their hatred. Good people don’t react the same way to finding other good people as the bad people do to discovering other bad people. Good people basically say ‘hi’ to each other; bad people meet and arrange to be cruel together, so that they will feel a false good.
The problem is, humans are social and crave context and community. The bad ones more than the good ones. And when you are in the ‘good’ camp you dip into Twitter and Facebook and read posts and comments alien to your ethical framework, then come away thinking there are a lot more people opposed to people like you.
The most obvious subjects and worldviews that benefit from social media therefore are racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia and prejudice against or propagated by religious types. But there are subtler ways in which darker human instincts are bolstered and those opposed to hate are made to feel outnumbered even if that isn’t true at all most of the time. Humanity is much less repulsive, there is much more kindness, than you can glean from reading social media. There are fewer villains than we think.
An example: you have cats and a news story appears in your feed about pet cats in which someone advocates they shouldn’t be allowed outside because they kill wildlife. It’s a legitimate position to argue, though saying someone has a right to an opinion doesn’t mean you think they are right. It might be countered with the overwhelming evidence that the biggest killer of wildlife, making thousands of species extinct every year, is humanity – so why not ban us from going outside? You read the comments under it. Every cat hater in the world has apparently read and commented. There are thousands of comments calling for cats to be killed, banned, limited to one per household, shot or poisoned. You come away, hug your cats and think everyone in the world who isn’t a cat person hates cats and might want to harm yours. Distrust, fear, anger, isolation and hurt are all upped. Yet most people don’t hate cats at all.
This is why social media is the enemy of coming together and the enabler of an increasingly fragmented society. Before social media there was the ‘moral majority’ – loud, angry, determined and given far more press headlines and TV and radio coverage than they deserved given they weren’t a majority at all. Look up ‘Mary Whitehouse’. She was a keen advocate for censorship who saw filth and degradation everywhere she looked. She had allies and became a household name but she wasn’t speaking for a majority. If social media had been around, she’d have had millions of followers globally and would have had a chance of becoming a political figure elected to office to force everyone to do what she thought was right. And even now Daily Mail headlines detailing isolated, rare attacks on senior citizens have thousands of old people scared to go outside or features written about terrible accidents in NHS operating theatres have people terrified of surgery. The distortion itself is not new. The scale of it is.
Try to remember: not everyone hates you or your cat or your dog or your bicycle or your sexuality or your gender identity or your dietary choices or your favourite TV show or your skin colour or your faith.
Social media. It’s often good but there’s a lot of bullshit. Don’t let it make you feel you’re living in a world of monsters.
Andrew’s latest book, myfibromyalgia: one man’s experience of living with chronic illness, is out now in all Amazon store territories the world over. The ebook is £5.99 and the paperback £8.99. UK Amazon link.