These catastrophic results from social media disinformation campaigns only represent the tip of the iceberg because our social media addiction and the way these deceptive algorithms work also have a profound effect on the average citizen. By offering content that appears to match postings that we like or videos that we watch, Facebook and YouTube engineered a way to feed us more of the same. Since social media have eclipsed the reach of more traditional news outlets in the past ten years and amplify this polarizing trend exponentially, you’re likely to end up in a sealed opinion silo before too long because you won’t find any alternative viewpoints and differing interpretations of social and political events.
These opinionated clips and snippets have little resemblance with the legendary reporting of Walter Cronkite and Dan Rather, who considered it their public duty to deliver the news impartially and to break down complex political issues for their audiences in a fair and measured manner. Today, many users live in a fantasy world that is increasingly detached from reality, and that is equally true whether you’re on the political left or the right. The culture wars that began in the 1990s have taken on an extremely vitriolic spin due to social media amplification, with the result that this country is more torn and divided than at any time since the Civil War. A siege mentality seems to have descended on the nation, encouraging audiences to retreat into their own echo chambers by shielding themselves from any opposing viewpoints, happy to be fed constant validation of their own ideological grievances.
Taking a step back from these phenomena, it all looked to me like a big circus for an increasingly immature audience. And of course that’s what it is: today’s social media conglomerates have turned news into entertainment, into a partisan variation of reality TV. The fact that a former host of “The Apprentice” was elected to the highest office in the country is symptomatic of that development. Spectacle and outrage trump substance. Or put more succinctly: Social media encourage escapism and loneliness at the intersection of resentment and addiction. Our ever greater appetite for amusement, distraction, and indignation is leading to our ever greater infantilization and tribalization.
Make no mistake: these trends have a truly disastrous effect on the cohesion and functioning of our society. In the wake of this digitalized tribalization, we’re witnessing increased strain within families and communities, as well as an erosion of trust with regard to news media and political institutions. Family members break off contact with each other, Democrats wouldn’t date Republicans anymore and vice versa, and good-willed, decent citizens increasingly behave like manichaean culture-warriors with a holy code to uphold.
When exactly did political affiliations, religious views, and self-ascribed identities become a litmus test for whom we have a conversation with? There used to be a time when it was considered impolite to even touch on subject matters like politics or religion in a conversation. When exactly have we lost the ability to listen to each other and to appreciate the life experiences that have shaped the other person? When exactly has self-ascribed ideological identity become more important than genuine interest in the other person and her own life?