Abuse on Social Media; Road Rage on the Internet
At this moment, I am completely engrossed in a four-paragraph disaster written by someone that I haven’t spoken to since ninth grade. It is filled with so many contradictions, grammatical errors and horrendous argumentation that I can barely comprehend the position he has taken. I am curious as to how he qualified to become the world’s beacon of enlightenment on immigration policy. Perhaps, a better question is “why am I reading this?” It got heated quickly. I read the whole thread, replies and all. These guys didn't disappoint. Who needed reality TV when actual reality could provide this quality of low bar entertainment? That was my opinion about social media brawling until I was forced to pay attention to something much darker.
On February 14, 2018, seventeen people at Marjory Stoneman Douglass High School were shot and killed in what would become one of the decade's most widely publicized national tragedies. It took place less than ten miles from my house and impacted friends and people that I know personally. There was a swarm of media coverage and internet activity surrounding the shooting. We were consumed with shock and sorrow. Parkland was the living, breathing archetype of the American suburban ideal. If our children were not safe there, then they would not be safe anywhere.
In the wake of the tragedy, the community rallied in a way that was inspiring. However, it was the students themselves that really shifted the narrative. A few charismatic young men and women created a groundswell of activism that became infectious. It was hard to imagine that anything positive was going to emerge from all this suffering, but these kids were determined, and they received a lot of attention from some high places. The issue was gun control.
Now, regardless of your personal position on the debate, it’s seems only fair that these students have a right to weigh in on the subject. That is to say that their unique collective experience with gun violence qualifies them as informed contributors to the conversation, right? No one is required to agree with them, but we all must respect their right to speak. If you were employed by a factory where a bunch of your co-workers died from mesothelioma, no one would question your strong opinions about asbestos.
I couldn’t believe what I was seeing on social media. There were a lot of supporters who encouraged these student activists to persevere. However, to me they appeared to be outnumbered by the mob of venomous railers who assaulted these kids with the most profane and vicious threats and language imaginable. Where did they all come from? Bernie Madoff, who is universally despised for embezzling billions of dollars from investors and bankrupting charitable organizations, was not treated this badly.
I saw an online video of a man proudly loosing a hail of bullets from an automatic weapon into pictures of one of the students. He was saying something to the effect of “If you come out here and try to take my guns, this is what will happen to you.” Did this man actually believe that a suburban high school student was headed to his desert compound to seize his collection of firearms and Steven Seagal DVDs? People have been debating gun control laws since the 1930’s, long before any of these high school students were ever born. Why had they become such a target? The kids had opinions. They were loud. They upset some people. Too bad. If you don't like it, don't listen.
Why do we do it?
We live in scary times. There are a lot of angry and confused people out there, and they all seem to be looking for someone to blame. It’s easy to launch abuse from the impersonal distance of social media where human beings are reduced to digital images. The fictions that we can manufacture about others from this dissociated position are only restrained by the limits of our imagination. We have completely lost site of the fact that there are actual people on the other end of these exchanges. The angriest among us have manufactured a never-ending stream of consciousness from the foulest reaches of the human psyche. The quantity of hostilities appears to be unlimited.
In Beyond Good and Evil, philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche wrote, “And if thou gaze long into an abyss, the abyss will also gaze into thee.” Many among us have lingered too long in social media’s house of mirrors, and we have grown accustomed to the distorted reflections that stare back.
Beware The Hypeman
When I was 17, some of my friends and I jumped off the roof of a buddy’s house into his pool. That’s not an idea that I would have ever come up with on my own. However, when I saw someone else do it, and then was surrounded by a half dozen drunk teenagers screaming “Brixtir, jump!” I felt inspired. Those guys were my friends. I don’t think anyone actually wanted to see me get hurt. We were all committed to the same bad idea, which made it seem like a good idea. I’m pretty sure everyone survived.
Social media breeds mob mentality. Like-minded individuals, getting loud, upping the ante and throwing reason right out the window. When we get caught up in this mindset, it’s no longer about making a rational point. Online, it’s feral mob-driven impulsivity, the father of all bad ideas. When you have hyper-reactionary friends, who think similarly to you, be aware that these are not the people who will prevent you from doing something regrettable. They’ll applaud you for it right up until the consequences come. Then, you’re on your own. When you throw a hate harpoon out into cyberspace, once it lands, it becomes permanently inscribed in the book of stupid.
At the end of the day, I think it’s all about exposure. The most compassionate thing we can do for ourselves is to be mindful of what we are taking in. If something disturbs us, we are not obligated to continue looking. Perhaps the best contribution we can make on social media is to promote what brings us happiness or is meaningful, so that it might be shared with others. We may never drown out their hatred entirely, but we can stop reinforcing it by starving them of promotion and attention. Personally, I’m a big fan of animal videos and things that make me laugh. Post a picture of your dog, I’ll probably give it a like.