Social media: pulling us apart

Social media pulls us apart.

That seems to the conclusion of the New York Times‘s Thomas Friedman, after he talked with Wael Ghonim earlier this month. Ghonim is the young Egyptian who in 2010 created a Facebook page to protest the death of another young Egyptian at the hands of the police.

Ghonim told Friedman that within three days the page had 100,000 connections. In less than a year, during the Arab Spring, protesters helped topple the government of President Hosni Mubarak. Ghonim’s Facebook page is credited with having helped fuel the protest movement.

But then, Friedman writes, it all went sideways:

Alas, the euphoria soon faded, said Ghonim, because “we failed to build consensus, and the political struggle led to intense polarization.” Social media, he noted, “only amplified” the polarization “by facilitating the spread of misinformation, rumors, echo chambers and hate speech. The environment was purely toxic. My online world became a battleground filled with trolls, lies, hate speech.”

ghonim

Wael Ghonim (source: New York Times)

The new government that was installed in Mubarak’s place was itself overthrown in 2013 by the Egyptian Army.

Ghonim told Friedman that he’s spent a lot of time since then thinking about what happened. He says he’s come to understand the limitations of social media and the Internet, which he enumerates as follows:

  • Rumors are believed, and spread, as easily as truth.
  • We communicate with people we agree with and exclude everyone else.
  • Discourse is superficial and often emotional, with almost no in-depth, nuanced discussion of serious issues.
  • Today’s social media favors broadcasts over engagements between people.

The result of all this, Ghonim suggests, is polarization. People quickly divide into camps, where they clump together and shut out any dissenting opinions.

In Egypt, social media fed the fast-growing consensus that Mubarak must go. But after he went, the polarized camps couldn’t come together to form a consensus about what form the new government should have or what direction it should take.

In my country, the United States, our politics are as polarized as I’ve ever seen them. A candidate who can fairly be termed “hardcore right-wing” won the Republican caucus in Iowa. A “hardcore left-wing” candidate handily won the New Hampshire primary. The middle, between the two hardcore extremes, seems to be shrinking fast.

Has social media played a role in this polarization of the American polity? I didn’t consider that until I read Friedman’s report. But it seems plausible.

Rumors, to say nothing of outright lies, tend to take wing quickly on social media. We’re not always diligent about checking whether something is true — especially if it aligns with the opinions we already hold.

I definitely agree that we communicate with people we agree with. I justify it by saying there isn’t enough time to read everything out there. So I gravitate to a fairly narrow spectrum of writers whose views are close to mine. Within that narrow spectrum I hear from people who are slightly to the left of me and others who are slightly to the right. And I tell myself that I’ve received a broad and balanced sampling.

I’m also prone to take my information in small, bite-size pieces. It seems like there’s never enough time for in-depth reading. However, I see that changing. Long-form writing seems to be gaining momentum. I love, for example, to read the sports oriented human-interest pieces on the Players’ Tribune, a website that didn’t exist 18 months ago.

Finally, while some people use the Internet as a broadcast platform, I still see it as a useful forum for engaging with people — especially people I wouldn’t otherwise know. I’ve been exposed to the views of, and even made friends with, people who don’t live near me and who, without the Internet, wouldn’t have access to a publishing channel. People like many of you who follow this blog.

Friedman reports that Ghonim, having seen both the positive power and the destructive power of social media, hasn’t given up. He’s started a website for hosting serious discussions with articles by influential writers. “We…need to liberate the Internet” is how he puts it.

What do you say? Is Wael Ghonim’s assessment correct? Is social media pulling us apart? If so, what can we do to change that?

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6 thoughts on “Social media: pulling us apart

  1. Mark Baker

    Larry, everytime I hear this kind of complaint, I am reminded of the Eatanswill election in Dickens Pickwick Papers. (See http://www.economist.com/node/2384599). Social media did not make us like this, it merely reminds us that we are like this and provides us a more convenient vehicle for being like this.

    I think we like to blame the tech for these kinds of things, because the tech seems like something we might be able to fix, while human nature is not. The fault is not in our phones but in ourselves.

    But I can at least absolve you of only communicating with people you agree with. You communicate with me, after all. 🙂

    Reply
    1. Larry Kunz Post author

      Thanks, Mark. Your absolution is much appreciated. 🙂

      You’re right: the Pickwick Papers reminds us that for over a century and a half (and of course for much longer than that) human nature has been pretty much as it is today. In fact, I couldn’t help noticing that the article you cited is from 12 years ago (and 3 U.S. election cycles ago) — a relative eternity in social-media time.

      The more things change….

      Reply
      1. Mark Baker

        Ha! I never noticed the article was that old. I just Googled for “Etanswill election” and that was the first result that seemed apt. Assumed it was about the current race. Just goes to show! Nihil novum sub sole.

  2. Susan Carpenter

    I accept what Ghonin is saying, but I must also agree with Mark Baker – social media enable and magnify political trends rather than create them.

    At a barely conscious level, we imbue print with a credibility (and, therefore, power) it doesn’t always deserve. And by “print,” I mean anything conveyed by font, whether it’s literally printed or simply rendered on someone’s tablet. Because it’s “published,” it must be true, right?

    Reply
    1. Mark Baker

      Actually, Susan, that is not quite what I am saying. I think that social media can profoundly affect political trends by enabling ordinary people to communicate and organize very broadly and very quickly.

      What I don’t think social media can be blamed for is the nastiness and polarization that goes with political discourse.

      There is a real danger of thinking something is new just because we are newly aware of it. But at the same time, the fact that we are newly aware of it can have profound social and political impacts. Social media did not cause and cannot cure original sin, but it does both make it more visible and give a forum for expression.

      Reply

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