Social Media Is an Obstacle to Civilization – Nicholas Baum (02/09/2021)

On January 5, Variety published an article about an interview between Rowan Atkinson, the actor behind the “Mr. Bean” character, and the British outlet Radio Times. In the midst of the lengthy interview, which saw Atkinson discuss a host of different topics pertaining to his role, a brief and personal opinion was given about the dangers to free discussion and civil discourse that social media may induce:

“The problem we have online is that an algorithm decides what we want to see, which ends up creating a simplistic, binary view of society. It becomes a case of either you’re with us or against us. And if you’re against us, you deserve to be ‘canceled.’”

As expected, of all the substantive topics that Atkinson would go on to discuss in greater detail, it would be this relatively short dialogue that grasped the attention of many on social media. In fact, the tweet from Variety advertising the article received over a thousand replies. Responses ranged from stating that social media provides a justice-driven “accountability culture,” to people downplaying it as a myth, to some saying that social media profiles are exposed to a wide range of opinions, but that “most of those opinions suck.”

The truth, however, is far from the contradicting excuses offered by the masses of Twitter; and the implications of this truth are dangerous to the notion of free speech and the necessity it poses.

The Problem with Social Media

Firstly, it is true that every social media platform utilizes an algorithm to customize the user’s “feed” with content they enjoy. The problem with this lies in not necessarily that the social media platform may be biased, but that the math employed in every user’s experience delivers solely content they agree with, whether it be the profiles and accounts they follow or the recommended posts that meet the standards of the user’s liking.

From the “explore” page of Instagram to the recommended videos on YouTube, the services we’re increasingly using in our daily lives are solely reaffirming our beliefs while actively preventing opposing ones from coming to our attention. By only being exposed to one viewpoint, the effects of free discussion’s absence are evident: the allowance of misinformation, the incentives for intolerance, and the suspension of progress.

The Growth of Misinformation

By allowing opinions to go uncontested and incontrovertible, being welcomed by a presupposed audience that already agrees with it, there’s no source of pushback that may debunk or at least challenge such a claim.

Given that the opinion is received by a group of users already in agreement with it, it’s most likely that such an audience won’t commit to the same intellectual rigor of its certification if it were to be received by a group in disagreement with it. The audience will want to accept it as truth, and do so.

Every ideology and school of thought has a means through which the world is viewed and events are judged. The adherence to solely one likely negates important viewpoints in others. If only one is consulted, an almost certainly misleading or downright fallacious opinion is engendered. Without any opposition, this incorrect view persists unchallenged, and as we’ll see later, grows into resentment. In the absence of free exchange and a diversity of thought, flawed and defective opinions may be pushed which are otherwise easily refutable or debunkable by opposing ideologies. As John Stuart Mill writes:

“There is the greatest difference between presuming an opinion to be true, because, with every opportunity for contesting it, it has not been refuted, and assuming its truth for the purpose of not permitting its refutation.”

An opinion is true if it withstands every challenge or refutation made to it. In an online setting where users can limit their audience, block accounts, and protect comment sections, which extends to most platforms, the marketplace of ideas where truth is determined is substituted for the enclosed rally of participants around an opinion treated dogmatically.

The Grounds for Intolerance

In the absence of the exposure to a given opinion, a resentment of such an opinion or its author may grow. If the only sources consulted and ideas entertained are the ones that are already agreed with, sheer ignorance conflicts with the reality of the opposition.

Discussion only amongst those in agreement has an inherent tendency to corrupt. Devoid of any challenge, such opinions held in unanimity will be treated as a dogma, an irrefutable idea whose deviation from is intolerable. This is far more likely to occur than many are willing to recognize. When the people you surround yourself with are all passionately ascertained with a given idea, such an environment necessarily grows a prejudice for those who disagree.

Worse yet, the homogenous dialogue of a particular idea may be symptomatic of the first issue, if the ideas of the opposition were to be mistaken by the group. This “straw man,” unable to be corrected, could easily lead to passionate disdain if misinterpreted to a certain extreme.

Regardless, if much of one’s daily or online exposure is exclusively to a group of people with a set of common opinions, people without such opinions may be seen as mysterious and threatful, with a lack of subjection to them or their opinions undermining their entitlement to one.

This is what Atkinson alludes to when saying, “It becomes a case of either you’re with us or against us. And if you’re against us, you deserve to be ‘canceled.” Social media allows us to surround ourselves with agreement, which further alienates those who disagree. Without anyone representing the opposite opinion to defend themselves, a single point of view is compounded, and as it further summates without any refutation, those who may disagree appear to be much more villainous and impersonal than they likely are. The more passionate or ubiquitous an opinion is, the less likely that those that adhere to their own beliefs and happen to disagree are tolerated. It’s a matter of human nature.

The Obstruction of Progress

Alongside the free discussion of differing ideas, no matter how popular or unpopular these given ideas may be, the end product is ultimately progress. This is because as different conceptions and opinions are exchanged and debated, it’s more often than not that the truer ones are uncovered.

This is similar to the first consequence, in that misinformation grows. Whereas fallacies emerge when only a single idea is preached, the truth emerges when many ideas are debated. This is no accident. Recall that an opinion is true if it withstands every counterargument and refutation; in fact, it’s the only way of certifying its truth. Therefore, the only way to determine what is objectively true in any number of issues is to allow the freedom of discussion and debate in the first place.

Furthermore, the “truth” doesn’t have to be some scientific fact or physical observation that we normally associate with the word. In this regard, it more often than not means a “moral truth,” a notion or belief that society rigorously holds on to. Some of the most unpopular opinions of their times would become these moral truths. The notions of classical liberalism; ideals we now think of as necessities such as liberty, equality, and democracy, were considered radical and saw little support for most of mankind’s history.

The free market economy, and along with it the principles of voluntary cooperation and free trade, found its roots in the mightily unpopular movements of peasants to cities, ditching the centuries-long order of feudalism. Society progresses when these would-be moral truths are granted the environment to be debated. Over time, unpopular opinions are tested and, if they prove applicable to the state of man or society, and if they withstand every challenge to it, are embraced.

If we consider progress as the discovery of truth, then it can only be through the tolerance of many viewpoints and exchange of many ideas that such progress can be obtained.

The Threats of Social Media

The culture and way of life enabled by social media platforms has come into direct conflict with the principles of free discussion, embarking on a path of dogmatic ideals and misinformed users.

Algorithms are coded that effectuate an echo chamber of unfollowed posts and users nevertheless in agreement with the profile, enabling hours in content of further reaffirmation. The user holds the ability to restrict who sees their profile, content, and is allowed to respond to it, creating the aforementioned homogeneous discussions and communities multifariously adorning platforms.

Other users can be blocked; blotted out of existence with their content and beliefs, and along with it their access to the blocker’s content and beliefs, restricted from sight, sparring any inconvenience found in viewing such content. What these tools of social media enable is a culture where the user is constantly right and the opposition constantly wrong. Where every tap, click, and like validates what’s already believed in while ostracizing what’s already refuted.

It’s a culture of self-affirmation and vindication, of an insulated access to the wide array of intellectual opinions for the sake of the amplification of clung-to beliefs. To the detriment of the occupants of such insulated spaces, those in outspoken disagreement must be careful or else they’ll be “cancelled,” the consequence of negating one of the occupants’ many dogmatic and irrevocable ideals.

There’s an unprecedented supply of misinformation; no one is there to refute it. There’s been scarce a time of greater polarization and divisiveness; the direct result of people choosing to expose themselves only to the conveniences found in agreement. Society seems to be regressing, not improving; because opinions go unchallenged, with divisiveness around different truths replacing unity around fundamental beliefs.

Although not much can be done to assuage this societal retroversion, the largest impact must come individually. For the sake of the furtherance of truth, tolerance, and progress; have a discussion with that friend or family member you disagree with. Read a post or article about the other side of the issue. Choose to respectfully engage the opposing viewpoint that may be nagging you. Most importantly, use sparingly the many tools social media offers to limit free expression.


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