The ability to reach thousands of people instantly was touted as a way to spread democracy, but the reality is not so simple, writes Angela Eagle
Social media has completely transformed our human landscape and presents new and urgent challenges to those who value truth in the 21st century.
In 2015, three young girls from East London travelled to Syria to become ‘jihadi brides’– a trip from which they never returned. In April of this year, Alek Minassian drove a van through pedestrians in Toronto, killing ten people, and injuring sixteen. In Myanmar, rumours on social media contributed to the killing and displacement of over a million Rohingya Muslims and the deliberate destruction of their way of life.
On the face of it, these three events appear unrelated, but on closer examination, that is untrue. All three were enabled and exacerbated by the internet and by social media. The precise nature of Facebook and Twitter means that incendiary content can be shared quickly with thousands of people, provoking hatred and division at a rate previously unknown.
The three girls from East London were radicalised without their parents’ knowledge by slick online propaganda. Minassian was allegedly part of the violent and dangerous ‘incel’ online subculture. He was inspired by another incel, Elliot Rodger, who shot six people in California. Incels, or involuntary celibates, are misogynists who blame women for what they perceive as their lack of success, particularly in the establishment of sexual relationships. Their specific world view has formed part of a wider trend of online radicalisation known as the ‘manosphere’ which takes violent misogyny to dangerous new heights.
All this is a far cry from the idealistic vision propagated by the tech behemoths that social media has an entirely positive impact. After the toxic memes which encouraged the hate-filled aftermath of Brexit, Trump’s election as president, and the Cambridge Analytica scandal, it is fair to say that we have become increasingly suspicious of the propagated benefits of social media. Far from spreading democracy, social media is threatening it – destroying political discourse and replacing objective facts with a morass of lies, combined with an almost virulent personalised form of propaganda.
Social media has become a sewer.
It is no accident that trolls are attracted to places like Twitter and Facebook. The most effective way for ‘engagement’ on a social media platform is through nastiness, outrage and extreme views. Perhaps most alarmingly, all of this clicking seems to be altering our behaviour. Facebook and Twitter have become places where people exist in a state of permanent outrage, whipped into a frenzy by clickbait articles placed onto their timelines by an algorithm designed to perpetuate engagement with outrageous content.
Our online spaces are also flooded with messages that we agree with, creating a self-reinforcing echo chamber. Those who disagree with us now seem completely out of touch with our manufactured ‘reality’. This is destroying our compassion and our capacity to express empathy upon which our humanity depends. It is destroying the very idea of a common experience, of compromise, and of mutual understanding. There is no room for measured political debate and discourse in an online cauldron of hate where opponents are hounded and harassed to the point their mental health is affected.
Although social media may have the power to spread democracy, promote community and connect people, it has so far been more capable at spreading hate, promoting negativity and dividing people. How do we solve this problem? In order to reclaim political discourse, we need to recast the way we think. We need to move away from the advertising-led business model that currently dictates content on Facebook. We need to place compassion front and centre, and to create a new world outlook, one not grounded in the selfishness, greed and individualism that market fundamentalism has encouraged.
This is no less than defending and extending the Enlightenment itself. Social media is creating a reversal of a political discourse, and a society based on reason and facts. One that accepts our differences while allowing us to be inclusive, to be empathetic and to understand others. Only then can we begin to dampen down the flames of fury and create a more sustainable, secure future for everyone.
On the other hand, we could just delete all of our accounts. Probably a bit drastic, but it would definitely get Mark Zuckerberg’s attention.
This article first appeared on Progress Online here