Our inability to think, not Facebook, is the problem

 Social media. The boon and scourge of modern life. It gives us a chance to catch up with each other, see what’s new, and rally our followers to like or dislike something. It has also come under a lot of criticism and scrutiny since the 2016 election, and with the next election just a few months away, that criticism and scrutiny is getting even louder. It is not, however, social media’s fault. It’s ours.

   Case in point. Before Memorial Day, I got a text from a friend asking about something they saw on Facebook, something they wanted me to check out. Someone had posted that the flags for the graves would not be available due to Governor Wolf’s COVID-19 order. This spread across the platform and people thought there wouldn’t be any flags on the graves. Obviously, this simply wasn’t true. 

   I did some research and found that one PA company that was in the middle of the coronavirus outbreak was having shipping problems, but that was it. Other companies were able to ship, so there wasn’t a problem. I personally placed flags on graves at Morningside Cemetery with my fellow DuBois Area Honor Guard members.

   The problem with social media is not the platform but our knee-jerk reactions to what we read. It was not hard for me to find out what was going on. All I had to do was think, but thinking seems to be something that is in short supply.

   Critical thinking has many definitions, but the essentially is means not agreeing with something until you’ve had a chance to check things out. My friend was right in being skeptical about this post and looking for information instead of just mindlessly passing it along.

   Mindlessness just about sums up what is happening. People like something or share it or tweet it without thinking about it, especially if it makes them angry. Anger is the key ingredient. That’s why the Internet trolls working for foreign governments and other organizations are so successful in getting their posts shared. All you have to do is make an outlandish claim that will make people angry and then watch it shoot across the social media platform unchecked.

   The goal of these posts is to divide, and its working quite well. Have you ever seen our country this divided? Have you ever seen public discourse so toxic?

   While social media is a big part of the division, there are other causes. Radio talk shows like Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity stir the pot, knowing that if they can get their listeners angry, they can get ratings and those ratings translate into big bucks. 24-hour TV news stations do the same. Dividing the country means cash in their pockets.

   I trace this back to when I was in radio. At one time, when we voiced an opinion, we had to present an opposing point of view so the audience got both sides of an issue. That Fairness Doctrine, as it was called, was repealed in 1987, paving the way for the angry one-sided rants heard daily by millions of people.

   But Limbaugh, Hannity, Fox, CNN, MSNBC, and all the others are just doing what they do because they have one goal–make money. If they don’t make money, they won’t stay in business. The fault, as Shakespeare once wrote, is not in our (media) stars, but in ourselves.

   We allow ourselves to be used by these corporate giants. We don’t critically think about what we read, hear or see. We actually confine our media consumption to things that reinforce our own biases and prejudices (called the selective exposure theory in psychology) instead of allowing other voices and opinions to help shape our thoughts. My criticism of Limbaugh and Hannity, I’m sure, has already caused some readers to not reach this point of my column. They stopped reading in paragraph 8, proving my point.

   Forcing Facebook, Twitter, and the others to police their posts is not the answer. The only answer is actually getting people to critically think for themselves, but I am at a loss on how to do that. I’m afraid our inability to listen to others has already made that impossible, which is the biggest threat our democracy has ever faced.

   As Pogo, one of my favorite philosophers, once said, “We have met the enemy, and he is us.”