How Social Media Made Recent Tragedies More Raw, Personal And Divisive

I saw a political cartoon this morning that said something like "America doesn't need a wall, it needs a mirror." It occurs to me that the mirror already exists in the form of Facebook and Twitter, and the reflection of America I've seen in the past two weeks on social media has been heartbreaking.

I think we're all feeling it. I've heard people wonder aloud if this is what 1968 was like, and I wonder how much worse it may get this week when conventions are under way. As I look back at historical precedent and think about how it may divide our country now, one thought keeps sneaking into my head: There was no social media in 1968.

Whatever happens this month or in the future, it will be live-streamed, commented on, blogged about, shared, liked, and meme'd. If there are protests, riots, or worse, we will know about it in immediate, graphic, yet not necessarily accurate detail. We'll read the feelings and commentary of those in our social network, and that may very well be what comes to dominate our perception of what is happening.

While I place a very high value on the access social media provides to so many previously unheard voices (including my own), experiencing the events of last week through that lens was particularly difficult experience. For me, it all felt incredibly personal and as it turns out, there may be a reason for that.

Facebook is my social media drug of choice. Whenever someone I knew shared an update from the news cycle, or commented on an article or post, as either an affirmation or condemnation, supportive or angry at the content in question, Facebook let me know. Their algorithm can't tell the difference between the two and in that, at least, it is objectively neutral in what it prompts me to look at.

Facebook is now considered the world's most influential news source. On June 29, less than a week before Alton Sterling and Philando Castille were killed and the police in Dallas were attacked, Facebook announced it was changing its algorithm to increase user interaction with friends and family, sharing that over content from media, brand and product pages. That may be why the conflicts felt personal, because they were, and because the algorithm change promoted them.

There are have multiple shootings directly linked to Facebook since that change. A man was shot and killed in Missouri after getting into an argument on Facebook about the Black Lives Matter movement which led to a violent in-person encounter. Three men were shot in Virginia while live-streaming two days later.

Social media in general has changed how we think about and respond to things. The way in which we formulate opinions on the events of last week, on world issues, political candidates, and culture are influenced not only by what appears in our social feeds but by how our network presents that information. A consistent positive (or negative) framing of an issue may cause you to re-evaluate your opinion. This type of social learning is common across age-groups and cultures.

Traditional media wasn't the same. Historically it has been both a reflector and director of public opinion, but there was no meaningful interactivity. Passively watching a news story on television or reading it in a newspaper is not the same as acquiring that information on-line. If you leave a comment, click "like", or share it, you are engaging with that content and with those in your network, in a way that may impact what you will see next.

I don't know if social media is the reflector or director of our collective response to the events of last week. I'm inclined to think it's both. The psychology of social media is essentially a reinforcing cycle of recognition and affirmation. There is an immediacy in the pull to be heard, to respond. I believe it makes these moments more emotionally chaotic, amplifying personal conflict and the loudest, most strident voices. 

We choose which voices to include in our social networks, and which to exclude. When our network is diverse, there is conflict. But the alternative is to exist in an echo chamber, where only voices like our own are heard, where our beliefs are reinforced, affirmed, and never challenged. In this latter scenario, the news we see and the commentary that provides its framework and drives our social learning will embolden an increasingly narrow, polarized worldview.

Last week, I took a break from social media and I was not alone. Like millions of other people, I was heartbroken by the events that took place and deeply disturbed by the raw and personal reflection of our nation that appeared in its wake on social media.