How Groupthink destroys Civility in Social Media

It is 2017. The previous sentence means differently for different people of different time and place. One very common definition of that statement, particularly among millennials, is the fact that information travels faster than ever. Publicizing personal sentiments are just as conveniently fast as reacting to other people’s. There is a reason why millennials are called the ‘Selfie Generation’. Internet and social networking have become deeply imbedded to the very identity of millennials as a collective.

The problem is that the general public, from any spot of the globe, had their hands on this kind of technology before establishing basic rules for civil discourse. Rash use of internet has laid the foundation for viral hysteria. It is as if children played football without even knowing when not to hit or not to be hitted by other players. It should not come as a surprise had these children gone home with multiple injuries, blaming everyone even their own teammates.

In February 2016, Senator Manny Pacquiao sparked controversy for his comments regarding homosexuality on the senate floor. This is followed by chaotic exchanges of misconceived attacks on social media, from Twitter to the comment sections of the Facebook page of major news outlets. Most of the reckless tirades associate the opposing side with ideas no one wants to be associated with. On one side of the argument, there were countless accusations of bigotry and homophobia. On the other side, people defended the senator on the grounds that he brought enough honor to the Filipino nation for him not to deserve such charges.

If there is something that those two arguments have in common, is that both divert the conversation from the core issue. There are indeed valid criticisms regarding the conflation of religion and state, or other fallacies in Pacquiao’s statements. But that does not justify any ad hominem attacks towards Pacquiao as a person. Meanwhile, Pacquiao’s success as a boxer, however great may it be, has nothing to do with him as a politician. The strawman tactic of slandering opponents with unbearable charges is not only unproductive, it is counterproductive. In a way, it prevents further exchange of ideas as the other side does not want to be implicated with the very things it is accused of.

Moving over to the other side of the world, Grammy winner Sam Smith tweeted in January 2016, about his friend who got verbally abused racially in the increasingly diverse city of London. The experience got Smith, as he himself described, upset, shocked and speechless. One would have expected the singer to receive sympathy from netizens for the horrifying experience, except not really. The next episode was Twitter users across the globe smearing Smith of ‘whitesplaining’ and ‘white privilege’. Many a tweet said Smith was so ‘privileged’ that he discovered racism late in his life. Many a tweet also criticized Smith for focusing on his own feelings rather than that of his friend.

How much more intellectually ridiculous can it get when hippies were accusing Sam Smith of ‘white privilege’ after speaking up against racism? This is a very obvious non sequitur logic, yet people were taking the bait. A way to decipher this is the fact that the words ‘white privilege’ and ‘whitesplaining’ had been previously promoted by some influential netizens as ways to combat sheer ignorance towards racism. So when some netizens see even just a handful tweets using - or rather misusing - these words, they were already programmed to throw themselves to that battlefield under the illusion that they were combatting racism.

A recurring theme of these incidents is herd mentality, in which people are eager to throw themselves in support one herd or another. Since the dawn of the species Homo sapiens, even before the developments in the Fertile Crescent, being a member of a herd has always been imprinted in our DNA. Some of the key behaviors of more advanced species are reciprocal altruism and group selection. Basically, early animals, including hominids, discovered that a tit for tat strategy in a population could benefit the population as a collective whole. Not everyone knew how to fish, harvest and make tools. But in a community, they could exchange services with each other thus building a case for these early hunters to live with each other. Not only the system fulfilled our ancestors’ intermediate demands, it also benefited their long-term evolutionary needs as each human looked for fellow humans preserving their shared genes.

The case for tribalism in humans is boosted by mirror neurons that enables a human to ‘mirror’ the emotions of another human, creating empathy. Emotions are definitely among the more unique attributes to human beings. There’s a reason why kids get agitated by watching a snake eats her youngs in National Geographic. There’s a reason why movies, despite being fictional, still draw genuine tears or laughs. Human emotions make a normal human individual wish that whatever bad thing happened to anyone would not happen to another else. Ironically, mankind’s evolutionary advantages have been turned into against itself by the social media that centres itself on groupthink.

There are endless examples demonstrating how social media became the platform to sell mass outrage. In this day and age, it has become so hard not to be dragged into these nonstop rampages. Can the equilibrium between individual and social identity be balanced in the crowd-minded internet? Can civility be still be brought back to the social media? These are the questions millennials need to answer as this tech boom has become inseparable with the millennial identity. This is not what millennials should leave as their legacy if they truly believe in a forward change. The next generation would grow up already having access to the internet. They would eventually grow up inheriting a mess, our mess, which have irreversible effects to them as youths. Millennials need to have an awakening on the nature of online discourse before the effects could not be reversed or redeemed anymore.