• David J. Fry, MPS, CDT

Is Social Media Tearing us Apart?

A recent social media ad stated that said platform was "built to bring people closer together and build relationships." However, today one must wonder if the “shadow side” of social media isn't responsible for much of the "division" that is touted these days. Here are a few points to consider.


Those who know me are well aware that I like to state the fact that every situation has "three sides,".....yours, mine and the correct one. It's an important mantra as one relates to everything from kids, to social situations, media stories, advertising, and more. Think of the latest tweet, post or chat. Most everything is slanted to the benefit or agenda of the messenger, and not surprising, as they try to "sell" their position. With that in mind, we are somewhat, naturally divided.


I also know that everything in life has a "shadow side." When the sun shines brightly on a solid object it casts a shadow. Correct? I encourage people to look for the shadow side of every situation, if for no other reason than awareness that it exists. Not only does it give perspective, but it can help avoid some common pitfalls. The “sunny side” of social media was "built to bring people closer together and build relationships" but the shadow side has emerged in doing the opposite.


Social media’s shadow side emerges from the lack of our filters, salty comments, misleading facts, and lack of understanding. In a world where anyone can "hide" in the shadows of their keyboard, one is bound to find disagreements and opinions that are controversial. These comments may even lower one's view of another. There seems to be an incongruence present. The acceptance and inclusion desired is heralded with bluntness and derogatory comments. Society rejects those that carry ulterior motives and the baggage of past experiences or uninformed opinions.


Why are opinions no longer just that? What has changed? What is different in social media, today's primary means of communication, that could be responsible for a seismic shift in our relationships and viewpoints? We may like to blame a person, affiliation or population segment, but I see three factors that make communication in social media emerge from its shadows in negative ways.


Too Much PR

The marketers out there see “PR” and are thinking, "there’s no such thing as too much Public Relations.” Well, in the shadow side of social media, PR refers to Politics and Religion. Both have their place but may need some consideration in their usage.

I remember growing up hearing my parents talk about the fact that there were two things they didn't bring up with friends. Politics & Religion. Their belief was that those friends felt so strongly about the topics that it would either; 1) dominate the conversation or 2) cause a disagreement to arise in an otherwise positive relationship. Perhaps they were on to something.


Think about the most frequent posts (and often least impactful) you've seen emerge on social media (besides COVID-19.) Politics and religion seem to dominate the space, particularly with pending elections. While positive discourse would be one option, these types of posts seldom are rooted in such conversation, instead they degrade into the dark side. In fact, the posts are often so incendiary that they create an immediate reaction that results in a firestorm of comments within seconds.


It's so unsettling for some in fact, that a Pew Research Center article by Maeve Duggan and Aaron Smith stated, "More than one-third of social media users are worn out by the amount of political content they encounter, and more than half describe their online interactions with those they disagree with politically as stressful and frustrating." It’s not a far reach to think this aspect of social media may be contributing to a bit to divisiveness, right?


Perceived Anonymity

Being anonymous seems contradictory to social media. Of course, we've all seen comments from the fake "John Smith" accounts. However, there is another kind of anonymity that seems to be closely related to accountability.


When a person is posting from behind the keyboard there's no physical exchange like in the old days. It's a one-sided interaction and individuals make their comments without regard for the other side's interpretation, reaction or feedback. They are emotionally "anonymous," as Webster's states "lacking individuality, distinction, or recognizability."

In some of these exchanges they really don't care what the others think. Others are focused so much on what they feel, want, or believe that they don't take time to think about the positions of others, or really care. How many take time to step back and look at the comments or posts before putting them out there for public consumption? Unfortunately, not enough.


The barrage of comments may seem harmless, having minimal impact. The reality is that the negative discourse can add to the division people feel. I've heard comments that state "I feel like I'm on another planet," and "I'm glad I'm the age I am." Social media may be responsible for that. In years past, people weren't quite as open or out there when another person was sitting in the room with them or across the table. They didn’t necessarily know what the others were thinking. Certainly not so with social media…… and the division widens.


Non-Verbal Feedback Missing

The perceived anonymity is rooted in the written word (comments, posts, etc.) and the inability to process the feedback that is so important in communications. Ultimately, social media lacks the non-verbal pieces of communication that make up so much of what we say…or don’t. Social media holds no facial expressions (okay there are emojis) or tone, or inflection of voice that can help carry the message or deliver its emotions. On the other hand, an in-person conversation relies on that two-way feedback to help guide and temper it.


We've all seen the percentage of communication that is non-verbal, and it's high, like 75% to 85%. So how do we convey that non-verbal piece with social media? We don't. There's the other issue that contributes to the divisiveness in our society.


Social media conversations are not tempered or flexible with the reaction of the other party or parties. Speaking to a room full of people you immediately get feedback and can adjust your presentation. Speaking to a "group" in social media means making judgements and comments that may provoke negative reactions before you have a chance to take the group's temperature. As a presenter, that's never a good position to be in. The divisive nature of social media only broadens when there is no price to pay.


In summary, social media is no different than other technologies that have evolved over the years. We’re still trying to learn how to use it “correctly,” to our advantage, and for the most benefit to the greatest number of people in our society. In its early days, we figured out how to deal with the sunny side, now we need to moderate how much negativity lies in the shadows. Think about that before your next tweet, post or chat.


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