Social media has brought about profound changes to our public lives — for better and for worse.
It has toppled governments, improved efficiency of disaster management, spread news with a reach and speed that was unthinkable just half a decade ago, and even reconnect long-lost friends. It is unfortunate then to see that it has also been used to promote ideas and conclusions without due consideration of the merits of such ideas and conclusions.
Thus every worthy piece of news is reduced to a one-liner, often sarcastic but clear, simplistic interpretation. Social media has thus become a gallery of this-picture-and-therefore-that-conclusion type of content. In many cases these have built up sufficiently to form a court of public opinion. What’s worse is that the conclusions drawn are almost always absolutely detached from any context or careful analysis of the issue at hand.
Social media has managed to achieve such popularity partly because they took advantage of the society’s intrinsic desire for instant gratification and short attention span. Anything longer than a few lines of words are unlikely to grab the attention of most social media users. In the never-ending quest for Likes and RTs, careful and worthy analysis of just about anything is precluded.
Thus what’s left are simply the conclusions – the punchlines without the jokes. Readers are forced to either accept or reject the conclusions, without the opportunity for careful judgment of such conclusions. Without the jokes, how can you tell if the punchlines are good? The fact that the human mind is inherently biased — we tend to favour conclusions that confirm our preexisting beliefs, for example — means that such posts on social media only reinforces existing prejudices.
The consequences are both unfortunate and dangerous. Prejudice begets intolerance, and the lack of careful thoughts allows for easier manipulation by those trying to push their own motives onto the public. Social media, with all the benefits it has brought, has also become fertile grounds for propaganda.
Examples of this are many. During election seasons, a picture of a ballot box in the middle of anywhere is enough to cry election fraud. Riot police spraying chemical-laced water and tear gas is enough to cry police violence. The ousting of President Morsi by the Egyptian military is swiftly concluded as war against Islam. Another headline of crime is swiftly concluded as rising crime rates.
The very least that each of us can do is to be aware of such things, and learn not to accept conclusions that are given without at least laying out the reasons in support of those conclusions. Read books instead, as well as analysis and commentary from multiple sources. They will take significantly longer and require much greater effort, but when everyone is sufficiently-learned about many issues and able to form their own conclusions, we’ll all be much better off.