Is the world becoming less kind thanks to Facebook?

Someone suggested to me the other day that the world is becoming less kind, thanks to social media, especially Facebook.

How social media works? This is HMS Vanguard, 16 May 1949. Copyright: © IWM (A 31508) http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205162518

I agree. The term ‘world’ in this sense means ‘first world’, of course. And the slide has been insidious. But the way one social media service after another seems to descend into personal bagging matches is clear enough. I see it a lot in Facebook groups, although this is not the exclusive forum for such behaviour. But it typifies it and, with a reach of around 2 billion of the world’s 7 billion people, it’s statistically significant. And this isn’t just me noticing; it’s also come under formal study.

What’s been happening? Let’s look first at the big plus side of social media.

A generation ago, my late Mum had a penfriend in the United States – Minneapolis, in fact – who she corresponded with regularly and often. They never met in person, but after a while they knew each other well. They made contact through a ‘penfriend finder service’ in the early 1960s. Today, social media is bringing people around the world into contact essentially in similar ways – but with more immediacy, and with an ability to find others in ways that would have been impossible or difficult even twenty years ago. There are some wonderful people  I’m in regular contact with – not just online but often also through private emails – from South Africa to the United States, Britain, Europe and Canada. All that’s thanks to blogging, and I would likely not have been able to make contact with them any other way.

Somebody before Facebook arrived (detail from watercolour by G. Richmond, public domain, via Wikipedia).

But there is a down side to social media mechanisms at the level of group or community shared commenting. Sites such as Twitter and Facebook, particularly, seem to descend swiftly into slagging matches between strangers, each fighting a zero-sum game in which they have to win whatever the debate happens to be, at all cost. Just the other day I was on a Facebook group whose commenters were congratulating themselves that their discussion hadn’t gone that way. So it’s definitely a thing.

What’s going on? To me the issue breaks down into several factors. One of them is the very limited scope of communication. Social media – notably those two services – gives the illusion of being in instant and full contact. Actually it’s only a partial communication, a shadow of true interaction, because it lacks both the immediacy of personal presence (where body language plays a very large part in the communication).

It is also written material  – which, psychologically, we parse differently from verbal discussion – but the written comments are often thrown out there in much the same way as we speak. This means they are open to misinterpretation when read, and often lack the nuance possible in more carefully crafted phrasing. Finally, most comments are also short; and that facilitates not just lack of subtlety but also polemic.

And the same person after being on Facebook… (actually, “Charles Darwin by Maull and Polyblank, 1855-1” by Maull and Polyblank – The Complete Work of Charles Darwin Online. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons)

Another issue is the unfortunate reality of human nature. One of the best winning strategies used by humans around the world and across societies is to attack the other person in ways that invalidate them, including invalidating any response they make. You can’t lose in those circumstance. And yes, the word is ‘bullying’. It’s done at every level from intellectualised conduct to open violence. On my experience it appears to be integral to human behaviour – we even build institutional systems and structures that facilitate it by defining some within that system as having power and others as having none.

It seems to me that some social media services offer structures that facilitate such behaviour, because they enable people to hide behind anonymity or behind remoteness – or both – and then perform like psychopaths, secure in the knowledge that cannot be physically touched. They will always win arguments because all they have to do is keep hammering the same point, abusively, non-stop. And the arguments they have are not to do with reason or the multi-dimensional shades of grey that comprise reality; they are flat assertions of one-dimensional polemic that – often – is either untrue or reflects but one aspect of a concept.

The debates that follow – as one group I am part of mentioned among themselves – are such that if the people involved were present face-to-face, they would probably have started hitting each other.

To me the whole environment and the behaviours that social media (typified by Facebook) seems to facilitate and permit is a public display of the dark side of human nature – the need to validate oneself at the cost of others – and of our innate ‘us and them’ mentality as a species. It’s from this framework that most of the violence about humanity emerges, at every scale from personal level to international warfare. It’s often intellectualised, disguised behind a façade of rationalisation and superficial kindness; but behind it lies a foundation of profound hostility towards each other. The scary part is that psychological experiments have shown that the reward mechanisms associated with hatred and revenge are far stronger for humans than those associated with kindness.

To me all of this is a worry. I mean, kindness to others – meaning tolerance, reason and accepting that their validity does not undermine your own – is a no-brainer. We keep forgetting the point. Is there a way around it? I think ‘written’ social media is likely to be joined soon by virtual telepresence – active live discussions between people, all visible to each other via their webcams. To some extent that’s happening now. And that will go some way towards filling the gaps in the communication mix. But I don’t think that will fix things. What worries me is that social media is so ubiquitous, and so common, that the behaviours we see are becoming normalised. And that, in essence, is why I think we are becoming less kind; it’s not that we’ve suddenly turned evil, it’s that the dark side has been facilitated and allowed to flourish.

To change that requires us to be aware of the issue and to actively and consciously behave otherwise. Can humanity do it, as a species? We’ll see. We haven’t managed it so far, not just in social media terms but generally throughout our history, with its endless wars and cruelties and injustices.

Any thoughts?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2018

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9 thoughts on “Is the world becoming less kind thanks to Facebook?

  1. Couldn’t agree more. Several years ago when FB admitted to manipulating newsfeeds to influence behavior I’d had enough and removed it from my phone. I also ceased using FB as a sign-in to other sites. Diehard FB users thought I was crazy, that such abuses were just a part of using the site. I reduced my presence to sharing my blogposts and any others I thought worthy and limited my presence to visiting for a few minutes each day to check on people I couldn’t visit elsewhere and to monitor groups I was in.

    It’s only become worse, and that’s aside from all that’s been revealed about FB’s activities since. Now, trolls slip into groups with ease, even those that are supposedly “closed.” I’ve had enough—again. I’ve ceased sharing there and now only use it as a means of communicating with those who aren’t elsewhere.

    Unfortunately, the policies and procedures that have corrupted FB are spreading to many other sites, especially those FB controls. Social media, in general, has increasingly become a stress filled experience where you’re always waiting to be attacked. It seems inevitable that the days of free, wide open social media are numbered, that people will flee to where they feel safer. Speaking in terms of the USA of old, law will be coming to the Wild West. Invariably, though, because that’s what humans do, THAT will bring short-term relief and, eventually, its own abuses.

    1. I agree – and there are signs of regulation entering the field now. That’ll hopefully fix the data issues (about which I was always cynical, which is why I don’t do much on FB or log in with it to anything).

      I despair about online behaviours, though. I’ve found one of the worst areas in FB is the groups. Last year I started writing for a US online naval history website, so I joined some of the FB naval history groups to get a handle on some of the audience. It was dire! I’m sure the majority in the groups are fine. But each of the groups I saw was dominated by the same little cabal of autodidact amateur loud-mouths – the same names kept popping up over and again. They spent their time using factoids gleaned, as far as I can tell, from a handful of well-known texts, and using them as a device for personally abusing anybody who didn’t have the same ‘knowledge’. No discussion, no critical thought, no sense of analytical technique – just bullying and calling others ignorant because they hadn’t spouted the same factoid online.

      Needless to say even the self-proclaimed ‘experts’ didn’t get it right, because they still thought in polemic terms, had no concept of critical analysis, and clearly lacked professional historical training. Nor did they accept such as valid; what counted was asserting what was ‘true’ (to them) over anybody else. Sigh. I left. And one of the more abusive then stalked me on other social media and started snarking at me there! Despite thirty years professional work in the field generally, including my thesis and multiple professionally published books on the specific subject of his hobby, to him I was apparently a hack whose non-fiction was pure fantasy, and he kept saying so. Did he engage me privately? No. Had he read my books in order to create an informed opinion? No. Did he have the guts to use his own name when abusing me? No.

      I should add that there are a couple of FB groups associated with the website I’m writing for which ARE civilised, intelligent and discursive! I’ve had offline discussions with the admins and they’re very decent people with a passion for the subject. But that’s an exception to the rule.

      According to my sister, who runs an online wool-crafts business, the situation in THAT field is exactly the same, and I suppose anybody who pokes into any area where people associate their personal self-worth with their field of interest. Facebook (and any social media that has similar structures) seems to facilitate the worst behaviours when engaging that mind-set. Sigh…

    2. Hi Ontyre Passages and Matthew,

      I too have largely left some social media, for both their users and the platforms themselves can be highly problematic and even abusive, unreasonable and/or high-handed.

      Some members in certain groups tend to form cliques, thus amplifying problems when things go awry or when conflicts or misunderstandings occur.

      Australia’s leading Investigative journalism program entitled “Four Corners” has covered at least twice the many dark sides of Facebook in recent years. Even before the coverages by “Four Corners”, I had warned some of my closest friends to no avail, as many are/were not sufficiently conversant in, and/or too apathetic about those issues to comprehend me.

      Another big issue that has really bothered me is the rather wanton and undiscriminating ways in which social media users use and share quotes. I have discussed and analysed the issue and other related ones exhaustively in my special post at soundeagle.wordpress.com/2017/10/18/the-quotation-fallacy/

      Thank you for all of your comments and insights.

  2. I think Facebook and other social media allows your id to come out and play, to put it in Freudian “woo” terms. On FB you aren’t subject to the same social or psychological constraints. You can be someone else, something else, let the dark side come out, although why it always has to be the dark side that comes out is a question to consider.

    It’s like the phenomenon of road rage. You aren’t you, anymore, you’re in a powerful cocoon of metal (creating, as Barbara Tuchman once put it, “a terrible worm in a steel cocoon” when talking about the knights of the 14th Century) that responds to your lightest touch. In effect, your every whim. And anyone who gets in the way, well, it isn’t a person, is it? Just another steel cocoon.

    For nearly a century we’ve lived with the threat of one form of annihilation or another. War, chemical war, germ war, nuclear war; destruction of financial well-being at the whim of shadowy manipulators; religious fanatics who warp reality and tell us THEY are the only ones who know God’s plan, and not to follow them is to roast, screaming, in eternal pain. And you know, as a historian, this short, short list could be multiplied by non-finite numbers.

    So I wonder if humanity has simply had enough. What we’re seeing, this lack of civility, what if it’s a massive cry of frustration and powerlessness? An attempt to assert control of some form, ANY form, over a reality that has become chaotic and unfamiliar? Of course it’s ugly and unpardonable. What else would it be? When people haven’t cultivated the self-awareness to let them see themselves as they are?

    Sorry. I was actually think about this very subject, yesterday driving home for the weekend from an away job.

    1. I think you’re right. Many behaviours online certainly seem to betray a sense of powerlessness – which is taken out on people in ways that invalidate any defence they make. As I mentioned in the comment above to Christine, my experience on a handful of FB naval groups was salutary: people who, very clearly, were amateurs in that field, but who were using the group as a device for successfully bullying and invalidating others irrespective of the expertise of their targets who – now I think about, it were clearly seen by these bullies exactly as you describe: things, not people. (I remember seeing one thread involving what amounted to dick-waving with battleship engineering specifications culled from secondary sources, in which the admin was reminding the debate that they were dealing with history that involved real people). As somebody on another group I’m in remarked, this sort of behaviour would provoke a fist-fight in the real world. The worry is if this general attitude is then extended into that real world – if this kind of conduct becomes ‘normalised’ by its ubiquity. It’s a sad outlook for society, and there is some indication that it’s happening – and, I think, for the reasons you mention: a sense of powerlessness among the majority. History tells me it’s happened before, of course, and in the past there has only ever been one outcome. Damn.

    2. I also agree with you, Tom! There will be even more new and pressing challenges facing modern human beings. Some of the projected statistics and global predictions are so dire that certain folks even liken the human species as cancer cells over-multiplying and wrecking havocs in the planetary Petri dish called Earth. The very next post published on my website will deal with these global issues and relating them back to human nature and its characteristics.

      Facebook affects not only civility but also our sense of reality and priority, which I discussed at the following contiguous sections in an extended, multilateral post: soundeagle.wordpress.com/2013/03/18/soundeagle-in-best-moment-award-from-moment-matters/#Jesse_Hawley
      soundeagle.wordpress.com/2013/03/18/soundeagle-in-best-moment-award-from-moment-matters/#Conclusion

      I am very curious to see if you have further points or facts to share there.

      1. I think I’ll be interested to see how you deal with the concept of “human nature.” It’s always seemed like one of those ideas that “everyone knows” but no one can really define. Looking forward to reading your posts!

  3. Part of it is that, on Facebook at least, one can’t moderate responses from other people (except as a page or group admin and many of those don’t bother) so the sort of behaviour seen in the playground – from people who have never been taught to hold on to what they are thinking before opening their virtual mouths – erupts without any sort of control.

    The same thing happens on online forums. There used to be a section on the WordPress.com help (support) forum which was for off-topic posts and it became so ugly with trolls and fighting (and spam) that it was removed. The posts can still be found in Google’s cache, I think (or they could the last time I looked) but there just weren’t enough people to moderate it properly. I saw the same thing on an art site that had a forum for artists to discuss and help each other, only on that one the owner of the site didn’t moderate at all.

    I had a moment myself a few days ago when I visited a Facebook page that I’ve Liked as my own page (I have one for my vintage interests). I posted a comment about the content then realised that the comments before mine were absolutely horrendous and I hoped these people wouldn’t come to my own page and troll it. If they do, I’ll use the ‘block’ button and hide or remove their posts – I’ve forgotten now what degree of control I have.

    The only time I’ve seen kindness come to anywhere near the same level on Facebook as the hatred and free-for-alls, has been when it has been sudden, for instance, in the midst of pain or war. Then it breaks out and shows itself.

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