Social Media Has Divided Us
The internet was originally designed to democratize information. Instead, it seems that it has only narrowed further our options in terms of how we see the world.
“If you read between the lines” my friend says “then you would know why I unfollowed you.”
My friend blocked me after that. I guess it was safe to say that in the age of social media, being unfollowed or unfriended is the most blatant act of losing one’s personal friendship. There is something so painful for a millennial to find out that someone has unfriended you in Facebook. It might have something to do with the fact that a huge part of our social engagements happen online.
I’m the typical introvert, so that means I try to cherish the very few friends I have. I emphasize the word few because, in truth, I do know a lot of people. But most of them are acquaintances, who for most of the time I only get to talk with on social media. Those who I get to hang out with in real life are really very few, and I try to cherish that.
But with social media becoming embedded in our personal lives, it is no longer possible to distinguish between the online world and the real world. Websites such as Facebook and Twitter have made it easier for us to interact with people, but it has also cheapen conversations. It’s easy to troll or insult someone when you’re only facing your computer screen, absent of any personal essence found in face-to-face communication. But while the interaction online may be artificial, the consequences become too real.
And I guess, that’s how I lost my friend. A disagreement, mostly over politics.
I agree, 2016 was one of the worst years for most of us. It’s not just because populism won over liberalism. It’s not just because of the huge number of celebrity deaths that met their maker. It’s not just because your ex broke up with you (maybe that’s a big reason). It’s because we’ve been attuned to treat the online world as an accurate representation of reality, and it just so happens that bad news tends to be more attractive in social media.
We millennials have grown accustomed to this seemingly uncertain world. Indeed, what makes us unique compared to the older generation is that while we were born in an age of economic boom during the 90s and late 80s, we only got to experience our adult lives during or after the Global Recession. So in essence, we were raised during the optimism of the 90s enshrined with the idea of chasing our dreams. But with the world economy currently in tatters, our dreams only become as such. It costs a lot of money to be successful, and unfortunately most of us who aren’t born rich don’t have that money.
So what kind of world does this make? A pessimistic one to be frank. Pessimism has become the market place of social media. We loved sharing speculations about the supposed 2012 doomsday scenario (which didn’t happen). An article about the next asteroid that might wipe the entire human species? Click share, accept the post as is (or maybe add your witty caption too).
This pessimism is what drives our tendencies to look at terrible news more than the good we hear. This is not to say that the current world right now isn’t so volatile. It is, but the doom and gloom seems even worse with our pessimistic attitude. It also does not help the fact that the more we share these types of content, that more that social media feeds us. Social media sites such as Facebook are designed to “recommend us more content” that we usually view online. This means that whenever you share that article about the impending climate collapse, Facebook’s news feed will probably show more content of a similar nature in your feed the next time you visit.
This system inevitably creates what we now call as “echo chambers”, a symptom common in social media where we only get to hear what we want to hear. It’s easy to blame Facebook, and to a certain extent they should take responsibility. But this algorithm is user-driven, meaning that it was in our prerogative if we wish to establish these online echo chambers. Even if it was done so unconsciously for most of our time spent curating the contents of our news feed, it was still done within our choice regardless.
This is where the irony kicks in. The internet was originally designed to democratize information. Instead, it seems that it has only narrowed further our options in terms of how we see the world. But where does millennial pessimism play a role in our more fragmented (online) society?
This pessimism may not be at the heart of what fragments us online, but it only adds fuel to it. When we start believing that Facebook’s news feed is a carbon copy of the real world, this is where it gets really toxic. 2016 is when the cauldron became hot. It was a year of elections. The sites and pages that originally shared doomsday predictions has morphed into spreading content about hatred mixed in the language of politics. In each echo chamber, people would share an article or meme about how the other side seems so terrible supporting the “other candidate”. To many of us, we are even fooled that our own echo chambers depicts an “accurate” representation of reality.
To make matters worse, our pessimistic notions of society only fuels our hopelessness of the situation which would ultimately define the year 2016, and maybe even 2017. We start losing faith in trying to engage — and therefore, understand — the other side. We start believing that there’s no point trying to convince the average Trump or Hillary supporter, because they’re stupid, dumb, racist, or whatever pejorative term we can come up with.
And this phenomena only worsens the existing echo chamber prevalent in social media. Not only have we stopped seeing the other side, we’d also rather alienate them too with preconceived stereotypes or insults. It has become normal for social liberals to launch labels of “racism” and “fascism” in discourses that barely resemble such. The right-wing are guilty as well, easily calling those they disagree with as “special snowflakes” or “cucks”.
Our hyper partisan divide has become so terrible that we are willing to end friendships out of a difference of opinion that was unthinkable a few years back. We became so easily offended about the mundane, and that in the most extreme cases — we’re even willing to break family relations due to our differences only worsened by social media.
This is not to justify actual incidences of douchbagery or outright racism, for in these cases it is only right to be antagonistic towards such scenarios. But to generalize an entire demography as being clones of one another is simply wrong. Yes, it’s true. Many Trump supporters had genuine concerns for why they voted for the Donald. In the same sense, not everyone who voted for Hillary is a “social justice warrior”. And when we actually do seek to engage the other side, we do so only to be smark— justifying to ourselves that there’s no more reason to be productive with our interactions partly due to the pessimism we so crave.
“Why did you block me?” I asked. No response, as I somewhat expected. Facebook’s messenger won’t help you much if a person really doesn’t want to see you. I pretended not to care, thinking that the situation was immature. But the fact that I kept thinking about it meant that I really cared. She was a good friend for 3 years.
“It would be immature of her” I thought to myself “to end our friendship out of a mere difference of political beliefs”. She’d see her immaturity, I hoped.
Weeks passed by until 2016 was almost over. That never happened.
Near the end of the year, I sought refuge to a close friend of mine who was also friends with her. I asked that friend of mine if she had any idea on why she suddenly turned cold on me. “No idea”, she says. “Maybe you just went too far, being a douchebag that you tend to be.”
She might have a point. Even if my friend blocked me because my political beliefs insulted her feelings, it still — nevertheless — mattered to her regardless of how “immature” I saw it.
The reality is, humans have always cared more about feelings over facts. This realization led me back to the hyper partisan divide we’re currently experiencing. Blind emotions can undermine the political process, sure. But to deny the very trait that makes us human would only lead us to being cut off from the realities of the political process. It’s why no matter how much numbers and figures you paste in your Facebook post, people of a differing opinion would still disagree with you.
I’ve always noticed that so many of us who see ourselves as an intellectual are afraid of inserting any sort of emotion in our debates. This is especially true for us who practice the social sciences in the academe. For us academics, we shun the emotional aspect of the individual over blind empiricism. This comes a lot from our insecurity that we feel inferior from the natural sciences. We copy the methodology of the scientific method to proclaim our objective view of politics, so that we feel that no one could argue back against us without any reason that we find acceptable.
But that’s also the reason why we got everything wrong about politics, and the very subjects we study — society itself — shattered the ivory towers that we mainstream analysts, consultants (or whatever fancy title you bear) never predicted. The fact that we fail to understand the aspect of feelings is why we fail to convince anyone of our views. It’s also why we find it so frustrating to reach out to the other side, away from our echo chambers, because we also fail to manage our own emotions since we felt they were “unnecessary in a political debate”.
But for the steel worker who voted for Trump because they lost his job from globalization, or the LGBT who voted for Hillary because they’re afraid of Trump — they voted mostly because of what they felt. Even if it seemed so illogical for us, what mattered to them was what they felt at the spur of the moment. And to some extent, even those who hold expertise and academic honorariums defend their political beliefs partly cause of what they feel.
There’s nothing wrong with this, because humans are social creatures by definition. To shun our emotions entirely is to pretend that we’re machines. What’s really wrong is with how we treat contemporary social science. We forgot the social in the science itself. It’s no surprise why most academics and experts got it wrong when they tried to predict the elections. We never bothered to empathize, and so we got it wrong. Big time.
“This hyper partisan divide is getting frustrating” I tell my close friend. She replies “Yeah! Same feeling. I don’t even bother checking my Facebook anymore because of how toxic it is”.
After moving from one topic to another, I ask again if she could talk to our mutual friend about the “blocking incident”. She gives me no promises, but tells me that she’ll try talking to our friend. My friend and I parted ways after that.
It was the new year, but our social media feeds remained the same. Our news feeds remained divided, people still engaged in smarks or insults. Frankly, my disgust towards social media was too much that I don’t even post too much about politics anymore. I now mostly devote my online accounts towards sharing memes.
As I was searching for memes in my twitter feed, I saw my friend’s alternative account that I still followed. Over the past months that she has blocked me, her alternative account was the only source of info I got about her daily life. Sounds stalker-ish, but as with social media it cannot be avoided. She tweeted about the horoscopes, the first sign she talked about was mine: Aquarius.
She defined my horoscope in a light-hearted manner. “Should I reply?”, I asked myself.
I scrolled my mouse cursor to reply to her tweet. I replied in jest, telling her that I could relate with her description of my horoscope. She replied 5 minutes later, a first time in a long while.
She tweeted, “My description was based on your personality”.
“I know”, I replied.