Social media started as an enjoyable way to chat with people who shared our interests.
But it soon developed a dark side. It started to generate hostility and hysteria.
Crazed mobs started to harass and threaten people who made social media comments they didn’t like. Well-funded political operations used social media to misinform and mobilize armies of dupes. Social media encouraged users to hate people they’d never met, about whom they knew nothing, over subjects of which they were completely ignorant.
The problem isn’t partisan or ideological. It hurts everyone. What can we do about it?
It seems to me that the problem has three main causes:
- All of us sometimes get angry or frustrated: We blow off steam by talking to our friends. Sometimes, we say outrageous things. Prior to the advent of social media, that was the end of it. The only people who knew about our outrageous comments were a few of our friends. But on social media, we’re sitting at our computers in home or office. We feel like we’re in private, so we talk like we’re in private. But we’re really talking to all of the two billion social media users on planet earth. Unlike our friends, many of those people won’t forgive our angry comments. They’ll get angry, too. At us. Sometimes, they’ll decide to do something about it.
- Our attitudes about social media are inconsistent: Almost everyone knows that 90 percent of social media comments shouldn’t be taken seriously. In spite of that, almost everyone does take them seriously. “Did you hear what Trump tweeted? Did you see what Rosie O’Donnell replied? And there’s a Facebook page that says terrible things!” Far too much indigestion and anger are caused by things that don’t matter at all.
- Our news media tend to hype outrageous statements: Outrage gets the news media clicks and viewers. Therefore, they have an incentive to stir up as much outrage as they can. In this case, Adam Smith’s “invisible hand” works against social welfare, not for it.
Three Imperfect Solutions
I can think of three solutions that aren’t perfect but that might make things better:
- Reminder messages: When people start to post a comment, social media should display a reminder that they’re talking to the entire world: “Is this something you’d say in front of a room full of strangers?” If it isn’t, people can cancel the comment.
- What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas: Government and social media companies should promote “amnesty” for most social media comments. They should not be taken seriously in real life. Of course, such comments are different from targeted campaigns of harassment, some of which have even driven people to suicide.
- A news media summit: The federal government should convene a summit of news media to agree on guidelines for news coverage that provides information without inflaming hatred. The government should only convene the summit, not direct it. If all the media cover the news more responsibly, then none of them will have an “outrage advantage” over the others. The summit and agreement should be public. The agreement should be vetted to avoid running afoul of antitrust laws.
Check out my new book Why Sane People Believe Crazy Things: How Belief Can Help or Hurt Social Peace. Kirkus Reviews called it “a thoughtful consideration of torrid intellectual disputes.”