Have you ever tried to express your opinion on Facebook about an important matter, like the state of our American union, the quality of journalism these days or which is the best team in Major League Baseball? Gangbusters, right? The comments don’t just criticize, they attack! You’re not just wrong, you’re an imbecile.
Wasn’t there a time, BSM (Before Social Media), when a person offered his or her opinion on something, people listened, and then maybe expressed their own opinions? People listened to understand, not to pounce.
Many blame our president for this anger. About half the voters in the last election preferred Hillary Clinton, and her loss — to him! — enraged her supporters. A mere mention of his name or equivocation on his evil awfulness provokes spasms in some people.
And those reactions are only slightly more vitriolic than the comments at the mention of Chuck Schumer, Elizabeth Warren or Barack Obama.
Most people who use Facebook and other social media are respectful, generous and caring, smart and lucid. They are that way on and off line. Those who are rude and in-your-face bellicose were that way BSM, and before Trump. Obama got folks upset, too. I heard co-workers mock George W. Bush with dripping sarcasm; they belittled him.
But social media are exacerbating the belligerence and contributing to the thin-skinned anger now prevalent. Disagreement isn’t the issue; it’s disdainful, arrogant condescension that’s killing the experience.
Back in the day, like 15 years ago, more people read before forming an opinion. They read a few newspapers, they read one or two weekly news magazines for long-form analysis, and some even read books, which provided depth or historical context. They educated themselves. They informed their opinions. Then they expressed those opinions, armed with facts and some perspective on the issue. Sure, they may have chosen newspapers and magazines that agreed with their views, but IMHO, even “slanted” media back then were generally journalistic, not P.R. organs for “their side.”
Now an hour on MSNBC, CNN, Fox, or The New York Times or N.Y. Post, or talk radio, is all anyone needs to be fully informed, right? And then we head to social media. In many cases, especially on politics, it’s about high-flame sizzle without cooking thoughts through. You read something brief, seize on the hot-button word or name, and you jump to tear it down. We don’t need no stinking perspective. We despise Trump, or Obama, or socialists or capitalists, or Cuomo or DeBlasio, so anyone who praises those whom you abhor must be stupid, worthy of quick and fierce derision, especially on anti-social media.
Soon, all we’ll need are emoticons. Who needs to carefully develop a thought, lay the unbiased, fact-filled groundwork that leads to a demonstrably reasonable opinion, arguable as it might be? Who needs to circumspectly study a subject before commenting? Like an anti-Beatle would have sung, All We Need is Hate. Just stick on a smiley face or a red, angry one. A good vocabulary will mean a full page of tiny faces and symbols.
We worry about the effect that social media sites have on our children and teens. There are sexual predators and vicious bullies out there. But there are other SM dangers, for kids and adults. Those hazards have to do with attention spans, and with the crippling of freely exchanged opinions. In homes and classrooms, we encourage young people to learn facts, listen open-mindedly and respectfully to others, and confidently speak up for themselves. But social media isn’t the place to do that. Imagine children expressing themselves, offering an original opinion, and getting ripped apart by critics in this age of ultra-partisanship. Peer pressure being what it is, how long until your children’s enthusiasm for self-expression is stifled, and they’re condemned to join whatever the groupthink is?
Facebook and Twitter, Snapchat and the other SM apps are great. They’re not going away. There are huge benefits to social media. There’s more sharing going on than ever in human history! That’s wonderful.
But we need to be more conscious of the dangers, to users of all ages. It’s too easy for people to hurt one another through disrespect, bullying and nasty glibness, all the while believing we’re communicating.
In addition to providing a happy venue for sharing, social media are scary places. We post quickly, commenters who feel they must disagree jump in, shout their words of brilliance, the thread changes the thrust of the original post, and it’s off to the next post, abandoning hope of intelligent exchanges.
I hope SM doesn’t push out actual reading, real study, fact gathering and the search for truth. Those activities are nowhere near as easy as using an app, but the effort is worth it, don’t you think?
O’Connell retired as the Herald’s executive editor in 2016. Comments about this column? OConnell11001@yahoo.com.