Daniel Blewitt

Empathy, the First Casualty of Our Social Media Wars

We’re all veterans of social media battles fought over reactive predeterminations. However, now that we’ve witnessed the damage, is it time to put down our guns?

 

It was late October that Donald Trump stated, “I doubt I would be here if it weren’t for social media, to be honest with you.”

This past U.S. presidential race was characterized by social media in a way that no previous election had been, it was fought in the feeds of the electronically engaged. So much so that it’s now being considered a major security risk that Russian companies funded a plethora of advertising in favor of Trump through Facebook. This is a significant issue because social media has become the table we speak across. It’s also where we can project an image of ourselves with a measure of control we can never achieve in person.

Social media incentivizes you to say the most extreme thing possible, to show the most outrageous thing imaginable, because that’s how you get attention and drown out everyone else. Think of the number of comments you regularly see below any article and how few appeared to actually read it. I would venture to say that most people emotionally react to the headline and store that reaction, without necessarily reading it.

Memes are the children of social media, they are the dramatic oversimplifications of situations for comedic or sarcastic effect. The ammunition of the social media elections have become an ever more dramatic meme war. The problem is that these memes exclude the complexity of any problem or situation and usually cause the people on the other side of it to become enraged at the excessive simplification. Both sides continually generate and send memes out, continuously hardening the sharp edge between the two parties.

No one is allowed to not pick a side, to consider both sides of any equation. Social media is the court of public opinion and it never closes. It blasts its judgments 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

The liberals in the United States have turned all conservatives into uneducated and racist caricatures, whereas the conservatives have likewise turned the liberals into soft, ambiguously-gendered whiners. There are no people anymore between the two camps, it has become a no man’s land. No one is allowed to accord political institutions and laws the complexity they require. You are a soldier for your ideologues. We’ve dug the trenches and well and truly bombarded any last people out of the no man’s land between us.

To bring it back to memes and social media content in general, people have been bombarded for the past few years by “fake news” social media posts: stories entirely fabricated to cast doubt and dispersion onto a group or argument. People like Alex Jones and Milo Yiannopoulos are royalty when it comes to hyperbole and sensationalism. Their organizations could post almost anything and it could run rampant across social media due to a chain of shares and likes and become more known than an article by MSNBC or ABC. This is why we’ve seen such an incredible upsurge in popularity for them. Social media does not favor moderation. It is a medium built for extreme sentiment.

 

How do we reverse the trend of clickbait news and meme-ification of complexity?

Well, people crave simplicity, it’s extremely attractive. It makes an extremely complicated world logical and understandable, especially for people who have not had a wide range of experiences and education. Social media has brought the complex world into everyone’s personal space and that makes it much harder to ignore. This means that it needs to be reconciled and it’s much easier to reconcile something complex as “bad” than needing patience or thought.

It all started really with 9/11 and the wars in the Middle East. Most people in the West don’t know any Muslims; most have probably not even left their countries. Only 35% of Americans for instance even own passports, of which it’s likely many have only gotten one to go to Mexico or Canada. These people hear about wars, horrific terrorist attacks, and over a decade of violence and cruelty streams through their news services from about 2001 onward. They can’t be too harshly blamed for forming extremely strong opinions about Muslims with no opposing context whatsoever. But this is where the schism began. Luckily, all we needed to do was keep fighting a war which was far simpler than what it became.


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When the Arab Spring occurred, it sparked a chain reaction that resulted in some civil wars which are still raging today, as not every despot was unseated. These wars have in turn created the refugee crisis and, as ISIS started instigating attacks in the west across Europe and North America, the sensationalist conservative pundits began to ride the wave of fear with endless streams of hyperbolic headlines – Adam Gabbatt explains in more detail here the issue with Breitbart.

Now we live in a world of fear and anger. Fascist Nationalism has grown immensely as the world feeds on the fear fed to them. Memes continue to be fired back and forth, no one is allowed to not pick a side. We won’t allow anyone to consider both sides of any equation, there is no time for patience, no time for consideration, everything must be done immediately and harshly as social media is the court of public opinion and it never closes. It blasts it’s judgments 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

I can only hope our love affair with the simplification of politics ends and we adjust to complexity. Nothing is simple. Be open.

As Socrates said, “I am the wisest man alive, for I know one thing, and that is that I know nothing.”

 

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