Social media bullying and breakdown in civility have become more glaring, with some users checking out. New York Times journalist Maggie Habermann is the latest to say she would be reducing her Twitter activity due to viciousness and toxicity. Twitter co-founder Jack Dorsey admits that more attention should be paid to fixing the dynamics within the platform, an impossible mission given the limited space for nuanced and richer conversations beyond sound bite or swearwords.
Early in 2018, the celebrated public intellectual, Ta-Nehisi Coates, who is vocal on race matters in the US, also announced that he was quitting Twitter and abandoning his army of followers over a million, after a bruising argument with the Harvard-based professor and public intellectual Cornel West. This debunks the notion that viciousness in social media is inflicted only by anonymous trolls.
Men and women who hold responsible positions in society easily lose their mind and lack self-awareness of the implications of their words on others. At one level, the platform becomes an amplification of who we are becoming, the changing character of our culture, our insecurities, deep-seated anger, and an avenue for the manifestation of whatever demons are troubling our souls. By and large, however, humanity is decent; and outside of social media, we year for much more than endless argument – to connect, to co-exist peacefully, to love and be loved, and to strive for worthwhile dreams.
Last week I sat down on a podcast discussion with Songezo Zibi, the former editor of the Business Day, now a banker, to explore this emergent reality in our human condition, focusing on social media platforms – a fraction of a much wider and complex social landscape, which is by no means representative of society, especially the social realities of the economically marginalised majority. The discussion on the toxic elements in social media is important because it is a sub-culture that could very well grow and overwhelm us, however small its warriors are. Given the influential voices of those that participate actively in social media or contribute to mainstream media, it is worth examining the conversational dynamics on this platform to gain some clues on the state of mind of those who shape opinions in society.
The question I was most interested during my discussion with Zibi is why has anger and violence become more magnified in this age of social media? Why are we seemingly lacking in civility in our conversations on these digital platforms that are supposed to be empowering us? Growing manifestation of anger is, by no means, limited to social media, but there are different qualities and motives that impel this force.
Outside of social media, the violent mobs pandering to parochial political agendas of populist movements, that are quick to intimidate their opponents, are not the representation of the truth in the sense of reflecting how the majority of society feels, but they are more organised and noticeable. Their tactics place them at the center of our attention, especially because they express themselves in dramatic ways, but also because they are able to craft narratives that are simple and appealing even though they are devoid of facts.
In Out of the Wreckage, George Monbiot argues that one of the factors that explain the apparent success of populist movements is the ability of populists to tell simple stories that connect with the prevailing fears; and that it matters little that their stories are fictitious, as long as they connect with the feelings of the excluded, they will be believed. On the other end, progressive mainstream parties or those that have sounder ideas in society fail to convince, even if they possess a string of facts, precisely because they lack a fluent narrative about responding to complex challenges facing society, especially the marginalised. As Monbiot puts it: “A string of facts, however well attested, has no power to correct or dislodge a powerful story.”
Policy debates, current affairs discussions, academic analysis, and opinion columns churn out a lot of insights about macro-economic challenges, macro solutions to health care or education, or how to improve the condition of doing business to stimulate growth, but very little narratives that demonstrate empathy to the marginalise and able to articulate narratives about social change in ways that shows a spark of imagination and that connect deeply with the poor.
The kind of anger that is brewing on social media or at least in avenues of social media is, in many respects, different from that which is expressed by the powerless in society. It is not driven by a sense of powerlessness and hopelessness in the face of an unaccountable and callous elites but using newly found power in perverse forms. It is driven by an idle mind, impoverished consciousness, and utter lack of responsibility. The fact that there is a group of people using social media, sometimes hiding behind anonymous profiles, to intimidate or threaten violence should not detract from the broader social reality of a shared yearning for peaceful co-existence, for genuine conversations, and for deeper forms of connectiveness.
We are not about to degenerate into the 17th Century state of anarchy, of a human condition that the Philosopher Thomas Hobbes characterised as nasty and brutish. Humanity today is certainly less bellicose and blood-thirsty than it was during the first half of the 20th Century that was marked by barbaric wars, colonialism, Nazism, and Fascism.
Today it is just that the incidents of intimidation, bullying, and threats of violence have become more magnified than the era when social media did not exist, but that does not mean quantitatively, and qualitatively human society has become more violent than it ever was. Foul odours and disfigured images tend to be more offensive and linger in the senses more than beautiful forms. We tend notice ugly and anti-social forms of behavior than those that reflect our better nature such as for example empathy, altruism, and good deeds, and as a result we don’t nature these qualities as much as we should do.
Steven Pinker points out in his work, The Better Angels of Our Nature, that human beings have over time become tamer than violent, that the urge for peaceful co-existence trumps the impulse for discord. He argues that human beings “come equipped with motives that can orient them away from violence and toward cooperation and altruism”. Empathy, self-control, moral sense, and reason are some of the qualities that Pinker underlines as defining the essence of our being. Yet we tend to feed the negative by giving perverse behaviours more attention than they deserve.
This is also due to the fact that voices of those that are driven by the impulses of anger, hatred, and violence are pushing themselves to the center stage like a serpent that has come to pervert the better angels of our nature, twisting discourse to suit their parochial interests, and intimidating those that have different political views or social outlook that is different from theirs. If we fail to stand our ground and offer a better counter-narrative to these negative forces, we will run the risk of enabling them to determine the course of our conversations and the character of our vocabulary and our culture.
What are the conditions that might have given rise to the attack on civility in social media? In a sense the magnified elements that use digital platforms to intimidate are oftentimes expressing their deep insecurities and impoverished consciousness and sense of responsibility. There are, no doubt, those who are genuinely angry about unfavourable social and economic realities; those who feel left behind; or those who are suffering under the weight of personal crises of one sort or another.
My podcast host, Zibi, offered that it helps when people get out of social media and engage with social realities, and realise their sense of purpose out there where real change is needed. My own observation is that those who tend to be engaged in social causes, and who participate in transformative social networks that are driven by a sense of mission tend to be less obsessed with themselves. Rather, they are more inclined to use social media to generate productive conversations. Social media can be a powerful force for good; and it is too precious to abandon to those who seek to spread hatred in the world and throttle the better angels in us. It will be a mistake to abandon this platform; before we know it, we will have no sacred space to defend in society.