Anger has become the currency of social media.
This is not something new. Scientists at Beihang University in China identified and then documented the phenomenon on Weibo, a Chinese version of Twitter, a half decade ago.
The anger only seems to have grown since.
Against this backdrop, what this country needs is a National Argue The Other Side Day. Once a month might not be bad for starters.
We might all learn something from this exercise if nothing other than that there are two (or more) sides to every argument. But there is likely to be a lot more than that learned. It’s amazing what people discover when they start looking at things in new ways.
What we’re learning now is nothing.
After their study came out, the virus spreading through the tubes was the subject of some discussion.
Three years later, the country elected president the maddest man on Twitter – Donald Trump. Apparently someone was listening to the folks at MIT.
Since the election, many have joined President Trump in loosing their inner rage.
Now Trump writes an inflammatory Tweet. Others re-Tweet the Tweet. The opposition starts firing off angry counter-Tweets. The counter-Tweets get re-Tweeted.
The arguments spread to Facebook and people rage.
American politics has become European Christianity in the 16th and 17th centuries. My party is god; your party is the devil.
Much of the discussion between the sides lacks substance. If you follow any of these eruptions, you’ll soon notice people entering the fray who don’t even know what the discussion is about. They are simply reacting to someone else’s reaction somewhere without bothering to determine whether it connects to anything rational.
As a result, online discussions go wandering off into the weeds where arguments grow more heated and the name-calling increases and the interactions spin downhill from worse to worse.
The time people spend on this, the energy people put into this, the sheer volume of words produced is astounding.
“If we would like to transmit the amount of broadcasted information with the help of newspapers, we would have had to deliver 55 newspapers per person per day in 1986, and 175 newspapers per person per day by 2007,” Martin Hilbert at the University of Southern California calculated in 2012 study.
God only knows how what volume of newspaper equivalents we are up to today.
Given the volume, it’s hard to avoid wondering how much of the anger is compounded by simple, old-fashioned information overload.
Roetzel described “information overload as a virus spreading through (social) media and news networks.
“…People often act irrationally by infecting others (i.e., sending more messages, likes, news to other members of their network) instead of sparing themselves (i.e., making a rest/recovery from their overloaded status).
“The intensive use of social media and the steady exposition to information overload might cause emotional, mental and physical effects….”
In other words, people end up stressed, which fogs thinking; and fearful, which pushes them into tribes for security; and in the end they become angry partisans.
It’s hard to forget Corey Akerelrea from Scammon Bay, a remote village in far Western Alaska. He was a bright, 17-year-old whose computer enabled him to interact with people all over the world in ways both good and horribly tragic in the end.
He was a video gamer who got flamed and deprssed and eventually committed suicide, a tragedy he documented up until the next to last moment on Twitter.
“I’m gone now” was his last Tweet.
Twitter is a social media platform that has been specifically singled out for study for its ability to polarize.
“Our experience with this body of data suggests that the content of political discourse on Twitter remains highly partisan,” M. D. Conover and colleagues at the University of Indiana pointed out in 2011. “Many messages contain sentiments more extreme than you would expect to encounter in face-to-face interactions, and the content is frequently disparaging of the identities and views associated with users across the partisan divide….these interactions might actually serve to exacerbate the problem
of polarization by reinforcing pre-existing political biases.”
Sounman Hong and Sun Hyoung extended those observations to other social media in a 2016 study published in “Government Information Quarterly.” They examined the behaviors of the members of the U.S. House of Representatives and how their views played with their constituents.
The highlights (or should these be lowlights) of that study:
- Politicians with extreme ideological positions have more Twitter followers.
- Social media may contribute to heightened levels of political extremism.
- Political polarization may be especially problematic in social media.
Now the country is overlooking a swamp of partisanship that seems to grow more by day as it feeds on the fuel of the American nature.
“Americans love a winner. Americans will not tolerate a loser,” the late Gen. George S. Patton observed. “Americans play to win all of the time….the very idea of losing is hateful to an American.”
Or as Trump told the midshipmen graduating the Naval Academy this year:
The problem is that democracies function not on any one side winning every election or the inevitable debates over policy, but on the collective winning a consensus with which all can live. That wasn’t easy before the internet invaded the not-always-so-United States of America.
And it seems to be getting harder day by day.
When Barrack Obama was president, we had a defeated Sarah Palin telling Republicans, “Don’t retreat, reload,” and now that Trump is president we have a defeated Hillary Clinton telling Democrats that if they win “back the House and/or the Senate, that’s when civility can start again.”
Until then? Rage, rage, rage.
Now, feel free to vent your anger at the suggestion rage is not the most productive of emotions.
Update: This story was updated from the original version on Oct. 22, 2018 to include a link to a story about Corey Akerelrea.