In a recent interview, Barack Obama made the following observation regarding the promise—and pitfalls—associated with the rapid growth of the use of social media in our hyper-politicized age: “The question has to do with how do we harness this technology in a way that allows a multiplicity of voices, allows a diversity of views, but doesn’t lead to a Balkanization of society and allows ways of finding common ground.” This is a good question, but it may miss the mark just slightly—as many perfectly reasonable questions sometimes do.
The ever-expanding range of social media—everything from Facebook to Twitter to Snapchat and beyond—has fundamentally changed our political, personal, and social discourse in ways we are still struggling to understand. Who, for example, had heard of “hashtag activism” a scant few years ago or would have foreseen the manner in which a political neophyte could leverage his love of “tweeting” into the highest elected office in our nation?
Politicians, reporters, businesspeople, celebrities, athletes, and others now race to provide their instantaneous reactions—we cannot possibly call it analysis—regarding every twitch in the fabric of our world. No event or statement—no matter how momentous or mundane—seems beyond comment, and YouTube personalities now rake in six and seven figure incomes for sharing (or perhaps oversharing) every aspect of their daily lives. Our planet’s population has become a global network of symbiotic exhibitionists and voyeurs, each dependent upon the other for the peculiar gratifications of either posing or peering. It is sometimes a wonder that anyone finds the time to brush their teeth between checking online, posting, and anxiously waiting for the “likes” to appear.
As a result, privacy is now nearly synonymous with invisibility, which has both individual and cultural consequences we can only begin to today fathom. We should, however, by now recognize the drawbacks inherent in engaging with social media in a manner that slices and dices individuals into ever-smaller subgroups based upon identities, interests, and political leanings. Although shared community can certainly result from, for example, finding Facebook “friends” who are just like you—and actively “unfriending” those who are not—this can easily slip into the Balkanization that concerns Mr. Obama. The myopic view of the world that results from communing exclusively with those who agree with everything you say produces the mental flabbiness and smug certitude that has helped to poison so many of our national conversations. Speaking only to those like ourselves surely separates us from one another—and impedes honest discussion.
However, this being acknowledged, I believe that Mr. Obama neglected to emphasize perhaps the greatest benefit of social media: the removal of mediators and filters that decide how information is transmitted—or whether it is transmitted at all. I am old enough to remember when a mere handful of major networks and newspapers were able to impose a virtual information hegemony upon our nation, which turned them into arbiters, gatekeepers, and kingmakers—and drastically narrowed the range of information and opinions available. Perhaps the most startling—or, for some, terrifying—aspect of last year’s Presidential election was that Donald Trump won without a single endorsement from a major news outlet and slogged on to victory while thumbing his nose at their repeated disparagements. This was, no matter how it might otherwise be spun, a stunning populist victory that would most certainly have been stopped in its tracks by the mainstream media in years past. It will be up to historians to determine the merits of Donald Trump’s presidency, but his success at the ballot box would have been impossible before the advent of social media.
Of course, right now a Trump opponent is rolling his or her eyes at his use—some would say manipulation—of his Twitter account, but it should be remembered that there would be no #MeToo moment or #BlackLivesMatter tidal wave revealing decades of pain and abuse were it not for the enormous power and reach of social media. In both of these instances, the entrenched establishment lost control of the narrative because millions of voices were suddenly able to speak and be heard. This is what most terrifies those in positions of previously unassailable power and influence: The average person can now wield a mighty sword to cut them down to size with just the tip of their finger tapping on a screen.
The nascent effort to combat “fake news” by empowering corporations and government agencies to ferret out information they deem unreliable—or perhaps embarrassing—seems to me to be nothing but a thinly veiled attempt by the establishment to reassert their control over what information is available in order to maintain their crumbling authority. Rumors, gossip, and pettiness have been baked into humanity since the dawn of civilization, but the official lies that have driven disastrous misadventures (we never did find those “weapons of mass destruction” in Iraq, did we?) are too numerous to enumerate and have caused vastly more damage to our nation and its people.
We are likely much better off with a wild and uncontrollable social media environment that asks uncomfortable questions and attacks complacent assumptions. If people are sometimes insulted and misinformation is occasionally spread, this is a small price to pay for the incredibly free and open discussion that is now possible, and we would be fools indeed to have this wrested away from us because some are more comfortable with the hollow silence that would soon follow.
The common ground we find after free-wheeling debate is a firmer foundation than the shaky consensus forced upon us by stilling voices of dissent. We must, of course, learn how to avoid ad hominem attacks and cruel invective as we discuss difficult and divisive issues, but the Balkanization that so concerns Mr. Obama also might be characterized as the messy and maddening freedom to speak truth to power and challenge a status quo that many find unacceptable. It is normal and healthy for citizens in a democracy to disagree, and those who yearn for the good old days when those who owned the television broadcast licenses or printing presses decided what we would be allowed to hear or say are simply hoping that taking away the voices of the many will protect the power of the few.
No matter how many times experts and insiders assure us that strict social media censorship will produce peace, harmony, or security, don’t believe it for a second. We are much better off with the sloppy cacophony of voices and viewpoints that we have right now, and those who are pushing for more curated conformity and crass control deserve nothing other than a good kick in the pants—on social media.