Social media is making us mean and intolerant. Why I’ve never been on it

Technology

This weekend I watched an interview with Jaron Lanier on CNN. He was talking to Christiane Amanpour about his book, Ten Arguments for Deleting your Social Media Accounts Right Now.

It was a fascinating interview, so – to the amusement of my family – I immediately bought the book on my Kindle. Believe it or not, I’m not on any social media. Never been. My kids created a Facebook account for me years ago, which I never used. The same for Twitter.

For me it was a simple decision: I’m a deeply private person and frankly do not want anyone to know what I’m doing, where or what I’m eating, or who my friends are. I take friendships seriously. I invest time, energy and focus in them which means I only have a few close friends. So, this whole concept of 2000 “friends” just baffles me.

The issues that interest me almost always involve complex questions; questions that certainly could not be answered sensibly in 280 characters (just ask Helen Zille). More importantly, I still find it surprising (and deeply humbling) that tens of thousands of people read this column every week.

However, I do not believe that anyone would or should be interested in my daily stream of consciousness. Equally, there are very few people whose thinking interests me enough to have daily or hourly updates from them. Thus, no Twitter for me either.

Then there is the question of time. Time is one of the most precious commodities of our age. Life is noisy enough and demanding enough with the constant barrage of information we cannot easily escape. I want (and need) time to think and reflect and if I had to make time for Twitter, Instagram, Facebook and all the other “have to be on” sites, I would not have a minute to spare.

But there is a much darker side to social media. We all know that social media companies are not only providing us with information, but are harvesting big amounts of data from us which, in some cases, they sell to other companies.

In true Orwellian 1984-style, these companies (or even governments) use this information to manipulate our behaviours in the commercial, political and social space. In fact, as Lanier shows, social media has started to modify our behaviour as a species.

Research has shown a direct correlation between time spent on social media and the global increase in depression and unhappiness. Lanier also argues very convincingly that through social media we are losing our free will, have given a platform to liars (fake news) and are destroying our capacity for empathy.

But the most compelling reason for either quitting or never joining social media for me is Lanier’s third argument: “Social media is making you into an asshole.”

Nowhere was this more evident than in the touching piece Ferial Haffajee wrote on Huffpost SA earlier this week, titled: “Ferial, you deserve a bullet in the head”. Ferial, like many (if not all) of us who are in the public domain, is well used to hate mail after decades in journalism where she has always fearlessly spoken truth to power.

But as she rightly points out, with the ease and anonymity of social media, these hateful comments are taking on a new level of viciousness. Although in this most recent case, one Travor@mbuyazi04 was quite happy to tweet about Ferial from a timeline with his photo:

“Stop misleading pple u bith…fuck u and go back to Europe…this is not your country asshole…u deserve a bullet in the head,” he tweeted. (See what I mean about “assholes”?)

Clearly this is extreme and Travor@mbuyazi04 is breaking a number of laws. (Ferial, please lay a complaint with the police against this guy!) The problem is that, as Lanier points out, “certain online designs seem to fight against people being authentically nice”, and that “since social media took off assholes are having more of a say in the world”.

This is, of course, because social media accommodates the lowest common denominator. ANYONE can be on social media and someone who would otherwise have no platform to have their warped, hateful, useless views heard, can send this into the world from their phone for anyone to read.

One can argue that for this reason people should just ignore these cyber-attacks. But as we have seen with the Penny Sparrow et al. cases, it does matter. Words matter. They stir up powerful emotions and can mobilise people into action.

It also narrows debate. Even the most hardened journalist or commentator will struggle with a level of self-censorship when they write after reading these hateful comments.

It is difficult to understand just what benefit social media might hold for my life. Despite never being on it, I am ok. I still have friends and I have rarely missed out on anything significant in the world.

Even as someone who makes a living out of following current affairs, I don’t believe that I have ever been at a disadvantage because I’m not on Twitter or Facebook.

In fact, I would argue that it has been a positive thing, because I have very rarely been caught by some fake media story. Most importantly, I don’t know what people say about me – if anything at all – which is a real blessing.

And if I can’t convince you, perhaps you should wonder why vast numbers of the Silicon Valley executives apparently send their kids to Montessori schools that ban all forms of technology!

– Melanie Verwoerd is a former ANC MP and South African Ambassador to Ireland.

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