Glen Scheele

T echnology disrupts societies.

The invention of the printing press in the 15th century enabled the rapid spread of new ideas. It helped usher in the Reformation and the Renaissance, upending existing institutions.

The Internet and social media platforms are technologies as disruptive as Gutenberg’s press.

Facebook, YouTube, Instagram, Tumblr and Twitter have been around for only a dozen or so years. But take a moment to reflect how these tools already impact virtually every aspect of your day-to-day life. The quantity, speed and ease of information flow are astonishing. Indeed, it’s why we have embraced these new technologies — to easily connect and collaborate with friends, family and colleagues.

Unfortunately, there are less desirable consequences of this power. Mark Twain said, “A lie can travel around the world and back again while the truth is lacing up its boots.” With the Internet, that lie can travel at the speed of light and be posted and reposted tens of thousands of times in the blink of an eye.

In fact, we have a whole new lexicon to describe the unsavory aspects of the
internet and social media — hacking, spam, rage-tweeting, phishing, clickbait, flame wars, troll farms — to name a few.

We are seeing the disruption of social media playing out in real time. For example, we now know Internet trolls deliberately planted false news stories using fake social media accounts in a wide-ranging and concerted effort to derail our civic discourse.

Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan once said, “You are entitled to your opinion. But you are not entitled to your own facts.” Today, someone may unknowingly claim “facts” from what is disguised as a legitimate source, but is anything but.

The anonymity of the Internet doesn’t only mask information sources. It can embolden individuals to be belligerent and disrespectful. This plays havoc in online discussions. Trolls will post inflammatory messages to deliberately start quarrels, derail reasonable debate, and provoke emotional reactions.

The breakdown of reasonable online discussion in early Usenet groups prompted attorney and author Mike Godwin in 1990 to propose Godwin’s Law: “As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Hitler approaches 1.” He saw in long discussions, sooner or later, someone or something would be compared to Hitler or his deeds. Godwin did not think such comparisons were always wrong. He was simply opposed to lazy, hyperbolic comparisons that frustrated debate.

“Although deliberately framed as if it were a law of nature or of mathematics,” Godwin wrote, “its purpose has always been rhetorical and pedagogical: I wanted folks who glibly compared someone else to Hitler to think a bit harder about the Holocaust.”

These few examples show how much more difficult open and honest debate can be in the era of social media. The difficulties can cause many people to disengage.

In fact, according to a Pew Research Center study, 37 percent of social media users are “worn out” by the amount of political content; 59 percent find interactions with others holding opposing political views “stressful and frustrating”;
64 percent say such encounters “leave them feeling as if they have even less in common than they thought.”

If people disengage from others who hold opposing views, we all become more isolated. As more people get their news from self-selected social media outlets than from print media, we have narrower common ground to stand on. If we see themselves as having less in common with others, then we become more fragmented as a society.

I don’t have an answer for the upheavals we are experiencing as a society. But I think we can share some basic rules of the road to move forward: Be respectful. Know your sources. Be skeptical. Keep an open mind. Agree to disagree.

We must all remember the success of our 240-plus year-long experiment in self-governance depends upon an informed citizenry willing to come together and debate.