Why is social media so toxic at the moment?

Flaming Computer

A lot of people are talking about how social media seems to have become toxic lately. Rachel Riley posted up on Twitter a poll earlier today:

I had an interesting discussion the other day on Facebook about how social media has changed the world. It was sparked off by this article by the former Prime Minister of Iceland, where he says:

Leaving aside the reasons for the collapse of that particular government, it has become clear that things that previously might have been considered minor or defused in a matter of days in the media (or over several years in an enquiry) now have the potential to start a ‘nuclear chain reaction’. This is the new political reality. The speed and unpredictability of modern communications means that an infinite number of issues, big or small, have the capacity to take on a life of their own. They have the potential to start social trends, provoke riots, and bring down governments or even start wars.

Those are big words – can social media bring down governments or start wars? It’s certainly caused a lot of upset, e.g. people who’ve had to resign over “twitterstorms”. I’ve blogged before about the dark side of social media and whether Twitter makes us dumb and angry. It wasn’t always like this; it seems like things have changed a lot in the past ten years or so. When I first joined Twitter back in 2009 it had a much more positive vibe about it.

What’s happened?

Let’s explore some of the reasons why I think social media has become toxic of late. I don’t claim this is an exhaustive list, but I think these are all contributing factors. I’m sure there are more – let me know in the comments what you would add.

1. Big things going on politically

The first thing is, over the last ten years we’ve had a lot of polarising decisions as a country. It was kicked off by the financial crash of 2008, and then the austerity programme. A lot of people were very unhappy about austerity, and took to social media to express it.

Then we had Brexit, and now the coronavirus – all things which split opinion. Particularly Brexit – which is the nature of an in/out referendum.

I wanted to start with this because I do wonder whether things would have been half as bad if we hadn’t had so much to contend with as a country. It’s the same with anything – when everything’s fine, it’s easier to be generous with those you disagree with. When you’re under pressure, it’s much harder.

As a country we have been divided before – the civil war was pretty divisive! – so division is something which occurs with or without social media. As such I don’t think that social media causes division – but I do think it can exacerbate it. Let’s look at a few reasons why that is.

2. Social media merges the personal and political

Let me describe an experience I’ve had many times: You meet someone in real life and get on well. You’re quite happy to talk about all sorts of things – kids, partners, life, jobs, etc. Eventually you become friends on Facebook… and you find that their Facebook is full of political messages which you don’t agree with. Over time this colours your view of them as a person.

Does that experience ring any bells? I’d be willing to bet it’s something which has happened to a lot of people.

Before I was on social media, I hardly ever had a conversation about politics outside of my own group of friends. I’ve had far more conversations about politics (and various other contentious issues) with people I barely know on social media than I’ve had in real life.

This simply isn’t the way it’s meant to be: on the internet, it’s so easy to see a screen and reply without considering the person behind. You can say things online which you’d never be bold enough to say in person – and that’s not a good thing!

3. Social media amplifies the minority

One of the things which social media does is amplify the opinions of people who shout the loudest. If a handful of people are vocal about a particular opinion, then – even if that only represents (say) 1% of your friends list – it will feel like ‘everyone’ shares that opinion.

I think it can work like that with disagreements online as well. A week or two ago I had a discussion about face masks on Facebook. A few people joined in, probably not more than about ten people in total. A few of them were quite vocal about disagreeing with me. Now, there are over 200 people on my Facebook friends list – so the number of people who engaged with what I wrote was less than 5% of the number of contacts I have.

But it didn’t feel like that. It felt like more of a battle than it should have done. One or two more aggressive comments carry much more weight than they should. I’m sure there’s something psychological there!

I’ve heard it said of the current ‘culture wars’ – “both sides think they’re losing”. This is the problem with social media: it can amplify the voices which oppose you and, outside the context of a relationship, make it seem much worse than it is. It’s very difficult to be objective about it.

4. Social media makes it harder to stand out

We human beings are social animals. We find it hard to stand out from a crowd. There’s a famous psychology experiment called the Asch Conformity Experiment. In these experiments, subjects would conform their understanding to a group, even though they knew it was wrong.

Now, those trials were done back in the mid-20th century, before social media had even be conceived. Peer pressure is something that existed back then – but imagine how powerful it is now that we’re always connected to each other!

If it was hard to stand out back in the 1950s, think about what it’s like now. Think about what it’s like when, for example, you are scrolling through Facebook and see lots of your friends have changed their profile picture to support a particular cause. Do you want to be the one who stands out?

Coupled with the previous point, I think this makes social media very dangerous: it’s easy to think that ‘everybody’ thinks in the way that vocal activists think. But this is far from the truth. It’s just that the people who think differently are staying quiet…

5. Social media encourages superficial point-scoring

While I was writing this blog post, I opened up Facebook and saw this meme posted by a friend of mine.

Blame it on the Tories.

This, to me, is typical of the political memes I see on Facebook. There’s no real political argument. There’s no looking into the nuances of an issues, the shades of grey… it’s just “blame whoever-you-don’t-like”.

“Our side” gets portrayed as the distillation of everything pure and good, while “their side” gets portrayed as the distillation of everything evil.

I am very aware in writing this post that only a handful of people will read it. But a meme like that could be seen by hundreds or thousands of people. It’s pithy, it makes a point, people will click the “retweet” or “share” button – even though it doesn’t actually further the discussion in any meaningful way. All it says is “my group good; that group bad”.

And that leads into the final point.

6. Social media encourages tribalism

One of the things which emerged a few years ago is that social media companies were intentionally feeding people news and links which they thought that person would like. Facebook admitted, for example, trying to determine someone’s political preferences and then trying to show them things which matched their preferences.

This lead to what became known as an ‘echo chamber’ – where you only ever really saw and engaged with views you already agreed with.

Now I think this is complicated: I see plenty of views which are different to my own political preferences. But, as we saw in the previous point, a lot of political memes aren’t about trying to actually persuade with logic and reason – they’re about trying to shame or bully the ‘other side’ into agreeing.

New Labour, New Danger poster
New Labour, New Danger poster from 1997

This kind of thing has been happening for a long time (e.g. I remember the Tories election poster back in 1997 “New Labour New Danger”). I can well imagine if social media had been around then, that would have been shared all over!

But, back then, that kind of thing was restricted to billboards and bus shelters and the like. You could leave it behind when you got home. These days, you can’t escape from it.

Summing up

The problems that I have highlighted here all existed prior to the advent of social media. All that social media does is take an existing problem and amplify it. This is what’s happened with technological innovation all through history: there are good sides and there are bad sides. The steam engine and the industrial revolution had many positive effects, but there were negative ones too. It’s the same with everything: there’s good and bad.

We human beings are tribal by nature, we like to have an “us” and “them”. Social media simply takes that instinct and puts it on steroids. We human beings find it easier to point the finger at “them” rather than listen to their arguments. And on it goes. Social media simply takes the human problem and puts it on a larger scale.

What can we do about it?

There’s a quote which I often go back to: “the heart of the human problem is the problem of the human heart.” Social media, or any technological innovation, isn’t good or bad in and of itself – the problem lies in the hearts of those who use it.

G. K. Chesterton was once asked to contribute to a newspaper piece “what is wrong with the world today”. He simply wrote, “Dear Sir, I am.”

The problem isn’t with social media – it’s with you and me. The Bible diagnoses this problem as sin – a failure to love God and our neighbour. We don’t treat people with kindness, we don’t listen to them, we want to put ourselves and our own interests first.

No technology can solve that problem. But – mercifully – there is a solution. This is what God says in the Bible:

I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh.

Ezekiel 36:26

Although our hearts may be ‘stony’ – although we don’t love as we should – God, the expert at hearts, can give us new hearts, hearts which love as we should and treat God and others as we should.

The problem with social media isn’t one which can be defeated by better technology or algorithms: the only way it can be overcome is through the new hearts that only God can offer us.

The Church: What it should be like…

I am very struck by how the church is called to be very different to the way social media often is:

There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.

Galatians 3:28

The church is called not to be petty, not to be tribal, to value everyone as those made in the image of God. Of course, no church is ever perfect. But I think in the church I belong to, however much we get it wrong, God is still at work in helping us to love each other.

So – my final thought: if you want to be part of a community to join which isn’t tribal, petty, divisive, and so on – find a good local church to join.

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