Divisions—Finding a Way Back from the Brink
Social media is bad for society.
Oh, sure, it has resulted in some good outcomes. Families are able to keep in touch more easily and share pictures of their latest adventures. Old friends can reconnect and have a sort of correspondence, when otherwise they might not have. People are able to be creative and share their creations with the world. But people can also group into like-minded factions, feed on each other’s fears and paranoia, and only acknowledge the information that supports their own perspectives. Social media has supported and sustained the divisions that exist in our society. It has so much potential for good, but social media is like any other tool—it’s only as good as the people whose hands wield it.
The speed and bias of information
People today have access to a crazy amount of information; it’s almost automatic. I don’t remember signing up for news flashes on my phone or watch, yet, somehow, they’re there. If you miss it on your phone, your smart speaker will cue you in. If you’re on social media at all, you can’t escape being up to date—or the version of up to date associated with your profile. People receive their own versions of news and information. Gone are the days of balanced, universally trustworthy reporting. Today we get filtered, biased news—no matter what our particular political leaning is. Yes, there are resources to help you be aware of the relative bias in news sources (here for instance), but even in the least biased sources, you can see evidence of editorializing. We are exposed to information and opinions that fuel our divisions constantly and almost instantaneously. It’s very hard to not think in terms of these divisions when they’re so regularly reinforced.
Thinking as part of a faction versus thinking for yourself
People tend to interpret every issue or opinion through the filter of their social/political identity. They associate with others who have similar social/political identities. People’s identities are so caught up in these factions that they are uncomfortable having opinions that aren’t associated with them. They look at every challenge or shortcoming in society from the perspective of that faction and immediately lay the blame for the current condition or lack of progress at the feet of other factions. The most obvious of these are democrat/liberal and republican/conservative political identities, but there are many groups and identities that go beyond these broad political categories.
Some of the most intense, heated conversations I’ve ever had have been with people of my own general political persuasion. When someone from the “same side” even suggests that part of a challenge or problem may have been caused by their faction, people become way more heated than they would about a challenge from someone who is obviously on the “other side.” Part of this is that people may feel more comfortable to give their opinions freely when they’re in “safe” company, but another part is the urgent desire to close ranks and ensure unity. There’s not a lot of room for open-mindedness or thinking for yourself in this environment, and this lack of diversity of thought is a significant driver of divisions in our society.
Are people’s values really that different?
I have several friends—good friends—on the “other side” of the social/political divide. I know them well, and they’re good people. We share many values, and we care about many of the same things. We don’t talk about political issues, not because we couldn’t reasonably discuss the issue or a way forward, but because these issues are so caught up in divisiveness that it’s almost impossible to have a discussion without devolving into separate, predetermined stances. But ultimately, people are not that different. If people could get to know each other before diving into social/political debates, we would be way more likely to interact effectively and civilly and make progress toward addressing our challenges. But because of the nature of social media and the exchange of ideas and information, that first step never happens, and trust is never built. How can we get back to a point where people know each other and care about each other on a deeper level? It’s not complicated, but in this day and age, it is hard. Society is changing, but people haven’t really changed. At heart, they’re the same as they always were (for better or worse).
The best we can do is stay genuinely connected with each other and be true to ourselves.
Illustration by Agsandrew