The Signal

Serving the College since 1885

Tuesday February 27th

OP-ED: Social Media is Killing Us

By Ian Krietzberg
Managing Editor

Two intertwined things rule modern society: instant gratification and social media. They work well together. One feeds the other and it creates this endless cycle of harm, largely in the way these two things have reshaped how our — sadly digitalized — society functions. 

Social media is not designed as a place to host conversations; instead, it exists as an enormous digital chopping block where those with any opinions or actions deemed “wrong” are publicly crucified by masses of anonymous, invisible people who do not seek to understand different perspectives, host conversations or provide forgiveness. Despite the fact that this cycle of fighting fire with fire will only stop when one side produces water, they seek punishment. These Twitter mobs are drunk on the hollow gratification of getting a hashtag to trend and watching as prominent public figures have to bow to their wishes.

It is not a sustainable way to function, but it happens all the time. 

Just a few weeks ago, it was Dave Chappelle, a comedian known for jumping rather harshly into the topic of transgender people, offering his audiences crude jokes about them. Besides the fact that this is comedy, not politics, and that free speech — especially that which is insulting, hard to listen to or disliked — is fiercely protected in America, the Twitter mobs wanted to punish Chappelle for a bit in his latest Netflix special, in which he discusses a relationship he had with a trans woman who committed suicide. The purpose of that story: a plea for kindness and understanding; a plea to think before you shoot. 

This point soared over the heads of the mobs that attacked Chappelle for being transphobic, calling for the removal of his special from Netflix and forcing Netflix’s CEO to take back his initial supportive response in favor of one that was more balanced.

What’s missing in all of this vitriolic hatred is legitimate, open discourse. Chappelle’s message, to those who actually watched it, was a simple one, despite being surrounded by offensive humor: “Empathy is not gay; empathy is not black. It must go both ways. It’s over. I’m not telling another joke about you until we are both sure we are laughing together. All I ask from your community, with all humility, will you please stop punching down on my people?”

It is a poignant message; one devoid of hatred, one with surprising honesty that strives for actual progress. But none of this made it into the trending hashtags about the Netflix walkout and the ‘monster’ that Chappelle is.

Twitter mobs wanted to punish Chappelle for a bit in his latest Netflix special. (Flickr / “Twitter” by Andreas Eldh. June 20, 2011)

Nothing is truly discussed anymore — social media bands together massive groups of people who crave punishment, not understanding. This accomplishes nothing; it further widens the divide between people who stand, evermore firmly entrenched, in their specific and diametrically opposed camps.

There will never be an understanding between our fractured society if people remain in these polarized camps of reactivity, selective facts and headline-based anger.

It’s a lazy kind of digital martial law. 

Months ago, it was J.K. Rowling who bore the brunt of these mob attacks. Though she tried valiantly to host a conversation by writing a lengthy essay explaining her views and explaining that her perspective does not affect her wish for safety and equality for all groups of people, since her view was not the “singular, right” view, she was crucified on Twitter in a pretty horrific manner. Nothing was gained in that interchange, just as nothing was gained in the interchange over Dave Chappelle. 

This concept of one group of people having a black and white moral compass by which all humans must abide, for fear of disturbing the wrath of the Twitter beast is incredibly base. The world is not black and white. Morality is not black and white. Opinion is not black and white.

There is a vibrant spectrum of intelligent, non-violent, non-evil opinion that gets filtered out through hashtags and all-caps tweets designed to affect ineffectual change in the form of public embarrassment.

This “cancel culture” environment, where people group together to cancel celebrities that don’t share their moral viewpoints, does nothing but further polarize an already polarized country. 

It is an illusory ego-trip in the pseudo-environment that is social media. And though everything there happens in the ether, the effects are felt in the real world. 

To echo Dave Chappelle’s sentiment, is it really too much to ask for everyone to simply stop “punching down?”

The answer, proved almost daily, is yes. It is too much to ask. 

These Twitter mobs feed off of their pressure, though they likely know that they are not making any real impact. Public embarrassment and apologies might ease their anger, but the concept of “cancel culture” is fraudulent by its very nature. This fraudulence exists because standing for something behind a hashtag on social media has turned into a fetishized trend. 

Society wants, even needs, you to voice your opinion — as long as it is their opinion, too —  in the meaningless environment of social media so that they can congratulate you for agreeing with them or attack you for being a voice of dissent. 

What social media is helping to create is a society of sameness, for, in this fake environment where words have become meaningless, absolute uniformity in opinion and perspective is wrongly perceived as equality. 

People are complex and different by their very nature. 

Differing opinions do not make either side wrong or evil. Everyone brings different complexities and histories to their interpretation of an issue. 

Disagreeing with someone on a moral standpoint does not make that person or group amoral; making jokes about a minority group or discussing misunderstood elements of that group does not make someone anti-that group or anti-human. 

If we started looking at people as people, rather than the “other” side in this tribalistic war for the bragging rights of holding the moral high ground, perhaps we might actually figure out how to move forward with neighbors that disagree with us. Perhaps we could then re-learn how to function as a society of complex humans, though I am fearful that at the rate things are going, we will never get there. People love to hate, and social media is a great platform for spreading hatred.

If we ever cared to spend that kind of time pursuing a solution to the swelling anger and polarization across this planet, maybe we would see that social media should be our first collective sacrifice. Its loss would be the most significant in bringing us toward understanding — not agreement, never agreement — just legitimate, genuine understanding.


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