Social Media: The Darkest Timeline

“The spirit of liberty is the spirit which is not too sure that it is right; the spirit of liberty is the spirit which seeks to understand the mind of other men and women; the spirit of liberty is the spirit which weighs their interests alongside its own without bias; the spirit of liberty remembers that not even a sparrow falls to earth unheeded.” — Learned Hand

There is a great sickness spreading quickly across our country, and I am afraid that its roots are healthy, its hosts are willing, and its effects are terminal.

It is a strange, robust strain of American narcissism, and it has been strengthened and amplified on social media. You see the symptoms every day: lack of empathy, binary thinking, a limitless sense of entitlement and a negligent disregard for other points of view.

As we collectively wade through one of the darkest moments in American history, this terrible affliction is getting even stronger. There is little agreement on baseline facts, anger is boiling over in virulent commentary, and instead of focusing on sober, nuanced analyses of complicated issues, the most divisive rhetoric is receiving outsized attention.

The human tendency to seek out easy, worldview-confirming answers is not new, but social media is turning an otherwise benign vice into something dark, sad and dangerous. We have forgotten how to argue, and we no longer see the value in being proven wrong.

We are holding important, public debates in forums that inherently frame how we express our thoughts. Twitter has a character limit, and if you want your opinion seen by a large audience, you had better deliver a two-handed dunk on your competition with no regard for tact.

Pull in the retweets. Release the dopamine. Facts are secondary.

You have professional trolls on both sides of the aisle with hundreds of thousands of followers. They maintain their popularity by never deviating from the persona they have staked out, and if that means defending the indefensible, then so be it. The schtick is more important than the truth, and a hot take soaked in hyperbole will travel across the Twittersphere faster than a measured, thought-out message.

Meanwhile, anonymous users respond to every popular tweet with divisive memes and unconscionable commentary. There is little to no recourse when things get racist, sexist or outright threatening.

Facebook is its own, distinct monster. Your news feed allows you to stay in your ideological silo, and you only get to peek in the other yard when one of your friends says something that rubs against the grain.

Inevitably, during every national tragedy, there are no-holds-barred fights in the comment sections. Actual fake news is peddled. Longer, nuanced responses are often ignored or derided as “TL;DR.”

There are no shades of grey. There is no room for uncertainty. Things are black and white, and you are a RINO, a cuck, a bootlicker, a Nazi or a Communist if you feel otherwise. Here’s a meme to prove it.

The COVID-19 pandemic and the murder of George Floyd have turned the dark world of social media pitch black, and I am not sure things will ever truly bounce back.

The coronavirus makes me fear for my health and the health of my family and my community. It also makes me worry about the state of the economy and whether or not lockdowns give licence to authoritarian practices that aren’t fully thought out in modern times. But I also wear a mask, and I wash my hands too much, and I feel a deep sadness for the thousands who have already perished.

That’s too many characters, and maybe it’s too many contradictions.

Floyd’s murder makes me sad and pissed off that this kind of lethal, racist bullshit still exists in 2020. Last week, I reached out to one of my best friends — a cop who is getting married and respects people and his community — because I am worried about him. I also don’t blame people for taking to the streets to protest something that is still woven into the fabric of this country.

I’d tell you that face-to-face, but I can’t imagine saying it on Facebook.

It didn’t used to be like this, and as the pre-social-media world disappears in our rearview mirror, it is becoming easy to forget how it used to be and almost impossible to figure out how we got where we are.

I am not sure how to make things better, but I am willing to listen to ideas. If my fears about the negative trajectory of social media in America are unfounded, I will happily be proven wrong.

I’ll even let you dunk on me — two hands and a meme.