Social Media and the Breakdown of Civil Discourse

Numerous articles have been written about the negative effects of social media on modern society. Some authors argue that, instead of bringing people together, social media serves to create ideological silos.  From the safety of our homes, we can tuck ourselves into online communities of people with similar views on politics, religion, or almost any subject. This can bring comfort, especially in turbulent times. And when our views are outside of the mainstream, it can  be reassuring to talk to like-minded people.   (On an average day, how many people do you meet who believe that cholesterol and saturated fat are good for you?) But the dangers of communicating primarily with people who think the way we do can be far-reaching.

In his 1995 book, On Killing, Lieutenant Colonel Dave Grossman discusses the psychological factors affecting the ability of soldiers to kill enemy combatants. Grossman, a psychologist and U.S. Army Ranger, states that the most difficult way to kill another person is in hand-to-hand combat. He cites evidence that suggests that during the Civil War, some soldiers would aim in such a way that their shots would deliberately miss the enemy fighters, or would engage in "mock firing," where they would load their weapons and simply pretend to fire. It would appear that many soldiers behaved similarly in World War II. Grossman argues that the increasing use of technology in military operations has made it easier for soldiers to kill. The technology creates not only a physical distance from the enemy but a psychological one as well.

I believe that we are witnessing a similar phenomenon of psychological distancing in human communication. In recent decades, the United States has become increasingly polarized. The results of the 2016 presidential election—and the response following it—testify to that disconnect. Part of the reason for the increasing polarization of American society is the fact that people engage less and less with others of differing opinions. More and more, people communicate electronically and through social media. Social media is, in itself, isolating and creates silos. On Facebook, people “unfriend” others who express views that they don’t like. In addition, I would argue that the distance created by technology makes it much easier to communicate in a rude way with others. Online, people hurl insults that would probably be much more difficult to express in a face-to-face conversation with a person of a differing opinion. This behavior manifests itself not only on Facebook but also in other online discussions such as the comments section on newspaper articles or under YouTube videos. Twitter is even more problematic, for various reasons. The character limit does not allow for much range of expression, and at times, the reader can’t be sure it’s a real person who is writing, or merely a bot. Of course, there can be thought-provoking discussions in online forums but, more often than not, one must sift through a mass of insults and rude and unproductive comments.

This breakdown in civil discourse represents a major danger to the future of the United States. The republic has endured for 230 years because of the ability of people of differing opinions to communicate and reach compromise. Now, instead of seeing the party on the other end as a human being, we are inclined see something amorphous, to be neutralized, unfriended, or blocked. It is difficult to compromise if you are unable even to have a reasonable—if heated—conversation with someone who holds an opposing viewpoint. In a previous post, I suggested not unfriending people on Facebook. Since that time, my thinking has evolved on this subject. While it is certainly possible to have a reasoned discussion on Facebook or via other electronic medium, this requires that both parties focus on logic, facts, and clear expression. More often than not, when we communicate electronically, we are tempted to express our visceral reactions. We don't have the benefit of facial expressions, body language, or tone of voice, and our words can be misconstrued. Things can become so unpleasant that we end up regretting having jumped into the fray and want to close ourselves off. To combat this serious issue, I urge people, for the sake of the country and our future, to seek out as many opportunities as possible to talk to others of differing opinions in in face-to-face settings. This may be uncomfortable, but by talking directly to other people, all participants in a discussion will receive the benefit of the full spectrum of human interaction. We may then have a real chance at reaching a better understanding of one another.

How can we restore civil discourse to the United States? Share your thoughts in the comments section below.

© Katharine Spehar, 2017-2018.

Photo credit: