Technology

It’s time to tackle the existential threat social media poses to society

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When I caught myself reminiscing about the past year, my immediate thoughts were primarily self-centred.

Upon reflection, I felt a degree of shame. Why hadn’t I been more compassionate about the positions of everyone else? Empowered by frustrated aspiration, the normally repelled streaks of selfish impulse had, for that short period of time, won the perennial battle of id and ego.

Ironically, during an era in which barriers had been frantically erected– be it nation state borders or stay at home orders– my objective mind seemed abnormally complacent in ceding to the allure of egoism and self-centredness. In other words, the internal border between reality and unconstrained individual reality had been breached.

Although timid in its impact, I wondered whether such a characterisation was applicable to the deep asymmetry of today. Had the conscience of society been plunged into a fantastical rift between the objective and fantastical? 

To be clear, I am not about to mount an assault on individual autonomy. Rather, it is the erosion of societal cohesion and responsibility that is of concern, often a symptom of contemporary political discourse masquerading as having care for the individual.

On an immediate level, the disingenuous rhetoric surrounding resistance to masks and lockdown often points to a dystopian projection of tyranny, despite both measures being empirically proven to mitigate harm from coronavirus. Yet, supercharged by flatulent social media echo chambers, propagators of cynicism and polarisation fail to recognise the profound irony of their ways.

The megaphone of social media has produced a hyperdemocracy, but, unlike its modest older cousin, it lacks a system of adequate checks and balances. Frequently behind the cloak of anonymity, people are free to say and do what they want- often without consequences.

The result? A whole new bubble of ‘reality’ is forged. The unchecked and spiteful id roams free, tearing away at the institution of democracy. Gone is the rational mediation of a democratic country, buried under the rubble of corrosive notions of ‘freedom’. 

That is why the deluge of the so-called ‘culture war’ is of such preoccupation. I have no doubt that there is growing cynicism in how modern Britain looks and acts. Demographic change, economic inequality and social anxiety may be strong driving forces that help explain the electoral pull of populism around the world.

In combining with social media, wide-ranging discontent has truly unimaginable and unprecedented capacities. Imagine a society of distinct yet simultaneous sub-realities, feeding off of paranoia and fear; all utterly convinced that their reality is the real one. The space for debate and adaptive political change would be castigated and imperiled. Our ravenous, subconscious selves will have overwhelmed the body politic, killing off any semblance of community. 

When the twentieth-century philosopher, Jose Ortega y Gasset, wrote his landmark book, ‘The Revolt of the Masses’ (1930), he suggested that blind imitation and unquestioning habits could have devastating ramifications for a society. Writing during the times of deep social combustion in pre-Civil War Spain, he feared the tyranny of the masses would be like ‘buoys floating the waves’. I fear we are heading in a similar direction. And it isn’t just social media– although a prime factor– but the weakening of broadly liberal and democratic values too.

Whether it be the worrying adoption of nationalistic rhetoric in France or the technocratic disconnect in Italy, the appeal of radicalism only becomes more normalised. Sure, radical parties haven’t translated their pull into grand political success. But it is their normalisation as acceptable political entities that constitutes the real problem. They poison political discourse, and worryingly, seem to be content with diluting individuality into fixed notions of antiquated and mythical identity. This represents one of the biggest incursions of freedom that I can think of. 

The reason I bring this up now is because we are facing a moment of extreme delicacy. Economic hardship has plagued the 2010s and for those who only just got by, another decade of debilitating set-backs is set to hit hard. There is a heightened demand for a responsive political and economic reaction, and one which offers sustainable solutions to long-term problems.

All the while, the stirring-up of misinformation could aggravate already deep-seated issues related to the rapidly expansive social media phenomenon. This presents a fundamental task to all sectors of society to solve. In doing so, democratic states should reaffirm the principles of their foundations: equitable and just legal systems; individual freedom and responsibility; security and community; receptive and universal education. These centuries-old ideas are still relevant to the present.  This process should begin, then, by reigning-in the power of social media platforms in propelling false, irresponsible and negligible narratives. 

As is often the case with crises, a fundamental rethink can be forged. Remembering those who have passed could instill a somber moment of national unity, rare in the frantic speed of contemporary life. It must do its best to incorporate the modern British demographic into its identity, acknowledging the asymmetries exposed by the pandemic. This, I hope, will temper the toxic rise of counter-intuitive friction amplified under the guise of false realities and emphasize once more the best democracy has to offer. Our times demand that of us. 

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