It’s common to hear that the world is “more polarized” than ever today. Some blame political figures like President Donald Trump, or in Israel’s case, Prime Minister Netanyahu, and both sides blame each other in nearly all political debates worldwide. Having dedicated the last decade of my life to social media activism for Israel, I am most certainly of the opinion that the juvenile level of dialogue today has been exacerbated by social media. How can it be that less than two decades after Facebook’s inception, at a time when the world is more connected and globalized than ever, that the political, ethnic, religious, and gender divides are more intense than in modern history? Two words: anonymity and simplicity.
Undeniably, immense good has come from social media. The freedom of information and the ability to interact and be exposed to different worldviews has had a tremendous impact on liberalism and democracy around the world. The Internet provides a big window on the world to all who have access – a non-discriminatory, racially-blind, equal opportunity provider of knowledge. But at the same time, that access has been and continues to be weaponized as a tool for extremism through the propagation of bad ideas leading to violence, intolerance, bullying, sexism, and an assorted variety of other ills. As a result, we see free speech, one of the most important and basic human rights, being pushed to the back burner in the marketplace of ideas because of how intoxicating these bad ideas have become.
Indeed, the unfortunate reality is that it is easier for “bad” ideas to spread through social media than good ideas. Why? Because the Internet empowers the darker side of human beings through anonymity. Ideas that are morally repugnant find a home online; they build communities, are emboldened, and thrive. We see it with pedophilia, with misogyny, with Islamic extremism, white supremacism, and more.
But what about more mild “darknesses?” Suddenly, elements of human society that were taboo for thousands of years, are perceived as being mainstream because of their online prevalence. For example, the rise of porn has had tremendous negative effects on young men and women and the way they (mis)perceive sex in the real world, and pornography depicting violence against women has skyrocketed in mainstream porn. We forget that just because something is legal, or possible, or accessible, doesn’t mean that we should do it.
And yet legislating and regulating the freedom of the Internet is just as immoral an option, because the powers who regulate the free speech become the ultimate arbiters of “truth” and “morality.” When governments get involved in censorship, the positive ideas and the forces for good are also harmed. Censorship in the marketplace of ideas is dangerous and oppressive everywhere it is practiced, including much of the Middle East and countries like North Korea, Somalia and Uzbekistan. Positive progress can only occur when openness to ideas flourishes.
THE SECOND factor that contributes to the descent of dialogue today is over-simplicity. Simple messaging is perfect for advertising, but because of social media, everything and everyone’s content has become advertising. We compete for the same newsfeed space, and as such, social media networks push the level of dialogue down endlessly. Important decisions and opinions that should be shaped by careful research are instead shaped by tweets, and sometimes by purposeful misinformation. We used to read newspapers, books, or academic studies to learn about complex issues – now we read Facebook posts (if we read at all), or look at Instagram. Our ability to process information and the time it takes us to form an opinion on an issue is shorter than ever – and that’s not because we’ve gotten so much smarter. From top world leaders to high school students, we are making decisions without careful research, and without considering all the factors. Truth has become slogans and memes, and justice has become shouting in an echo chamber.
The Israeli-Palestinian conflict, with which I am thoroughly familiar, provides an example. Discussing this conflict requires boiling down thousands of years of Jewish and Arab history, and millions of words of text from top analysts, leaders, scholars, and more, into a few pithy words. On both sides, there is trivialization of the legitimate qualms of the other side. Instead of approaching the issue with a genuine desire for knowledge or dialogue, we see the anti-Israel side far more concerned with demonization of the State of Israel and Jews than with discussing a peaceful resolution that addresses the needs of both sides. So much so that there have been videos with millions of views and photos with tens of thousands of shares purporting to be evidence of Israeli “crimes” that is demonstrably not (colloquially known as “Pallywood” by those in the pro-Israel community). The purposeful spread of misinformation is then amplified by well-meaning individuals, sometimes even journalists. In response, Israel supporters fight back with over-simplistic messaging, which at times ignores Israel’s shortcomings due to the disproportionate and illegitimate criticism of the State of Israel. Why? Because it seems to be the only way to compete for hearts and minds in the marketplace of memes.
Truth isn’t winning today, and if we are ever to benefit from online activity over the Israeli-Palestinian issue, there needs to be a genuine change in approach from both sides – which is highly unlikely given the anti-Israel side online is so fervently motivated and aligned with antisemitism. Most online criticism of Israel today isn’t rooted in a desire to improve the political situation, but in a rejection of self-determination for Jews. As a result, the side supporting Israel isn’t inclined to listen to criticism – even when it’s legitimate. And thus, we build bubbles of like-minded opinions on social media and fail to have meaningful dialogue.
The Israeli-Palestinian conflict online, and more specifically on social media, serves as a microcosm of the global problem. Bad ideas thrive and grow online through the building of communities with extremist ideas and purposeful misinformation, and are then amplified and distributed with simplistic messaging. That messaging is picked up by individuals or groups which don’t research properly before forming opinions. As a result, an opposing side pushes back with the same simplistic messaging to compete, and both sides become increasingly alienated. In the end, both sides have surrounded themselves with like-minded voices online, leading to increased intolerance.
Real change requires us to re-orient our thinking about how we form ideas, and to educate younger people (as well as ourselves) about what really constitutes a worthy argument. We need to consider not only voices we otherwise would not consider, but we need to read widely and consider carefully before we voice or even form our opinions. Reading widely should include reading actual books, which are valuable because they take time to write and research – and even if we end up rejecting an author’s entire premise, by reading the work we have engaged in an important critical thinking exercise.
It is only by working to promote a more educated and thoughtful approach to issues that the toxic cycle of social media will weaken. We must as a society come to grips with the way we communicate online, and encourage morally conscientious, well-informed, and respectful behavior – everywhere, all the time. The golden rule has always been, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” That applies when we’re face to face – and it goes for when we’re online, too.
The writer is the founder of Social Lite Creative, a political marketing consultancy firm.