Social media: the warped mirror that reflects back only what we wish to see

We’re two months away from its end, and 2016 really is turning into the year that, if we could, we’d all just keep hitting ctrl+z all the way back to the beginning. We’d undo death after death of national treasures like Victoria Wood and David Bowie, we’d resurrect Leonard Cohen and Prince et al. Not forgetting of course the two life-changing political outcomes we’ve seen this year: the victory of the Brexit campaign and the election of the permanently orange, idiot-misogynist, racist and all-round A-hole, Donald Trump.

I was shocked and demoralised when I woke up on November 9th to find that Trump had won the election. But, if the (to me) surprising Brexit outcome earlier this year taught me anything, it’s that you can never count on what you think will happen taking place. My friends and colleagues had all voted in, and so had everyone I followed on social media. Therefore to me, it seemed we were the majority. Not so, apparently. And, once again, with Trump’s devastating victory, the mirror of social media has mistakenly reflected back only what I wished to see – hiding the rest of the world’s opinion behind a selected list of people to follow.

Although it has always demonstrated an amazing ability to bring us together with others who share our values, the victory of Trump this week and Britain’s vote to leave the EU have shown us one thing, loud and clear: our scrolls through Facebook – liking peoples’ status updates and sharing articles that capture the spirit of our own opinions, posting quotes and photos on Instagram and retweeting pithy political one-liners on Twitter  – are nothing more than a mirror that is deflecting attention away from the bigger picture.

The longer social media continues to reassuringly reflect back only what our peers, idols and close associates have to say on a daily basis, it will keep on blinding us to what the wider majority wants.

And, of course, when you think about it, there’s no other possible outcome from a personally curated feed of news, opinion and lifestyles. Birds of a feather flock together, and nowhere is this more true than on our own social feeds. Just as we do with our friends, partners and acquaintances, we actively seek out those that share our values, and shut out those who do not. That guy who went off on a misogynistic rant on your status about the not-guilty verdict in Ched Evans’ retrial? You deleted him from your friends list. And a few months before, you instantly unfollowed the girl who tweeted she didn’t get why #blacklivesmatter more than all lives, even in the face of indisputable systemic racism and violence that’s resulted in the killing of 221 black Americans at the hands of US police in this part of 2016 alone. You quickly culled the surprising pro-Brexit friends from primary school who expressed opinions you disagreed with from your timeline one-too-many times.

These are just examples, but they serve to illustrate the crux of the problem. While it can be nice to surround yourself with a feed which only promotes and reiterates the opinions you hold, it completely shuts off the other side of the argument,and eventually becomes all you are exposed to. The automatic response when you come across something that counters this is to disregard it as erroneous and wrong.  On the morning of the US election, my Instagram feed was flooded with photos of Hillary, accompanied by #imwithher, while my Facebook timeline was full of humourous memes of times Donald Trump looked like an idiot, or lists of his most-outlandish statements.

It can be fun, and ego-stroking to comment upon, share and like things that echo our own opinion, but it’s so reductive. Soon enough, the articles doing the rounds on your newsfeed all propagate one side of the argument only, and then it’s all you read. You begin believing that everyone – bar a few angry, ignorant trolls in the comments section – utterly shares your view. It shrinks your world down to the size of a scrollable newsfeed, and it utterly blinds everyone to the reality. And the longer we allow this to happen, the more surprises we are going to get.

If these two shock political results have shown us anything, it’s that it truly is time to step out of our own bubbles, and start to actively seek out the other side of the coin. Read often, and read widely. Go and find articles you don’t agree with and get the whole way through – don’t exit as soon as the author’s sentiment doesn’t match up with your own. Drudge through the pergatory of the online comments section, past the trolls. Somewhere, there is someone who has a view that – although different to your own – will make you think and take stock, and maybe even alter your belief system. Don’t just walk away from someone who counters your world view when you find yourself sitting next to them at a party – challenge them, and allow them to challenge you, too.

We need to keep talking. Let’s collectively agree to pull our heads out of our own arses and start asking questions, and listening properly to the answers. Let’s play devil’s advocate a little bit more. Let’s keep the conversation going, instead of shutting it down when it takes an unexpected turn. I’m sure those are three things we can all  agree to hit ‘like’ on for a little while.

 

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