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Cynthia M. Allen: Taking a social media break from hate

Cynthia M. Allen: Taking a social media break from hate

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A protester carries the banner of Proud Boys, a right-wing group, in front of the Oregon State Capitol in Salem, Ore., on Sept. 7.

About halfway through lockdown, I deleted Facebook and Twitter from my iPhone.

In the absence of real human interaction, I had turned to my social media apps daily — almost hourly — in a relentless, at times desperate, effort to find information and feel connected.

I wasn’t alone.

Research shows that social media usage has grown during the pandemic, especially on sites such as YouTube and TikTok. Isolated during quarantines, more people have turned to the sites for entertainment and belonging.

But scrolling for hours, consuming an alarming amount of what some observers call “tragedy porn,” didn’t make me feel better or better informed.

And the sniping that usually defines a lot of social media interaction had only become worse as people speculated, virtue-signaled and panicked in response to a virus about which no one knew very much at all.

Then George Floyd’s killing, the protests and the subsequent civil unrest made my timelines explode in a flurry of stories, posts and comments that were seldom productive, sometimes incendiary and occasionally downright hateful.

I watched as Facebook debates about masks and school reopenings between people whom I love and respect turned into nasty, scorched-earth disputes. I watched complete strangers, with little justification, call each other racists on Twitter.

I couldn’t help but wonder, would these people be this objectively cruel in ordinary, pre-pandemic, pre-societal meltdown circumstances?

Either way, I decided that I didn't need easy access to such destructive virtual exchanges on the daily; and if the apps were not on my phone, I’d be spared much of their divisive content.

Of course, I’ve long had a complicated view of social media.

I see its utility and its virtue as a way to connect people in an increasingly atomized world.

And early in the pandemic — even in the early days of the protests — social media offered opportunities to express unity and to listen. There was some, albeit limited, value in that.

Some argue that social media sites are uncommonly egalitarian: They offer everyone the same opportunity to say their piece. The contention is intriguing yet debatable.

But like the road to hell, social media sites often fail their (perhaps) well-intended roots.

That’s been made all too clear by the efforts of bad actors, foreign and domestic, on the left and right to use social media to foment violence and spread misinformation.

Some false reports, particularly those that circulated in the early days of the pandemic, such as those about remedies or cures, were erroneous but not malicious.

But malevolent ends were clearly behind other efforts, including those to organize riots (not just peaceful demonstrations) and assemble armed resistance — which have on more than one occasion turned deadly.

The social media world is so vulnerable to these vices that Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg was compelled last week to unveil a series of rules for his site that he feels necessary for “clearing up confusion about how this election will work and taking steps to reduce the chances of violence and unrest.”

These measures will include removing misinformation about voting, not allowing new political advertising the week before the election, labeling information “that seeks to delegitimize the outcome of the election” and continuing to “ramp up enforcement against” militias and conspiracy groups.

It’s fair to debate whether Facebook is in a position to be a fair arbiter of what information is legitimate and what is “fake news.”

But when studies show that as many as 20% of Americans “often get news on social media,” it’s hard to argue that it isn’t warranted.

Just as we shouldn’t expect social media sites to provide meaningful human connection, we can’t expect them to police all of their content.

That requires some personal judgment and discipline.

My preferred strategy right now: Delete social apps and read a book instead.

Contact Allen at cmallen@star-telegram.com.

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