The late Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan famously said, “Everyone is entitled to his/her own opinion, but not his own facts” — a distinction that gets more difficult in direct proportion to the popularity and proliferation of social media.
According to a 2019 fact sheet published by the Pew Research Center, 5% of Americans were using a social media platform in 2005. By 2011 the number had grown to 11% and by 2019 it stood at 72%. Most of the users are young, with 18- to 29-year-olds comprising the highest percentage and 30- to 49-year-olds not far behind. Sclerotic baby boomers, like me, were the least enthusiastic about computer technology and all of its kin.
My wife, Marcia, and I discovered personal computers and the internet in the late 1980s with the purchase of a Mac Classic. It was a tiny box with a small black and white screen that came with a dialup internet connection, courtesy of America Online (AOL). It wasn’t particularly useful, unless you wanted to play games. I used it mainly for writing — a huge improvement over the clunky Remington typewriter I’d had since college.
Years went by and bigger and better Macs came along at home and at the office, along with high-speed internet connections, email, and wonder of wonders, the search engine, Google. I remember exalting how every book, every journal, every newspaper, every scholarly paper, every reference, every library — all the world’s knowledge was at my command. A new golden age was here for humankind, and I was partaking of it.
Then came Facebook and another breakthrough for sharing knowledge and information unfettered by ordinary media — or so I thought, until I signed up and took a good look at the content — frivolous and sophomoric. There were lots of photos of people, pets, and plenty of gossipy, feel good stuff, teenagers “friending” someone, ersatz evangelists, and political rants of one kind or another. But what about sources and credibility? Who was in charge? Who were all these people and their ideas? Why were they here? More important, why was I here?
So, it was goodbye Facebook.
Today Facebook has 2.7 billion users, worldwide, and is worth billions. Did I miss something? And what about Twitter and tweeting? The premise of broadcasting unverifiable, often misspelled and ungrammatical, messages to one’s so-called followers is Orwellian, but, then, along came Donald Trump. It got him elected President of the United States. My thoughts turned to a 1922 quote of HL Mencken’s: “On some great and glorious day the plain folks of the land will reach their heart’s desire at last, and the White House will be adorned by a downright moron.”
What has happened to us? Are we that intellectually lazy?
In 2016 Oxford Dictionaries selected “post-truth” as its word of the year. Post-truth is an adjective defined as “relating to, or denoting circumstances, in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.” In other words, social media.
It goes on, noting that the challenge for the next 10 years is whether we can defeat false narratives and allow accurate information to prevail, or will the quality and veracity of information online deteriorate due to the spread of unreliable, dangerous and socially destabilizing ideas.
I’m not optimistic.
Democracy depends on the integrity of the information we consume. Social media has failed us. It has created biased alternate realities that have deepened and hardened partisan divides. If America is to continue as a viable, unified nation, it must restore a healthy multi-perspective discourse.
There are calls for breaking up social media companies and/or taking away their liability protections or meddling in their algorithms. That would require lengthy, years long litigation and antitrust actions that will, in the end, undermine our right to free speech. Killing the patient won’t cure the disease.
Accountability is needed, and if the social media companies won’t take responsibility, we, as consumers can, and should by ignoring them and boycotting their wares, or challenging sources, calling out fallacies and questioning what’s presented as fact. The Socratic Method works.
Want good information? Pick good sources. Look for different editorial perspectives and viewpoints. Mine include this paper, The Star Tribune, Minnpost, The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, Boston Globe, The L.A. Times, The Atlantic, The New Yorker, and National Review.
More important, bring along an open mind and a critical attitude. Finding truth takes work.