Years from now, I’m not sure how I will talk to my kids about what these last four years have been like. I’m not a doomsday scenario kind of guy and I’m not picturing this conversation in a hut on the edge of smoking ruin. I imagine that things will not be substantially different than the way they are now. At face, I mean.
But as I think about cultural and societal shifts over the last four years, I do wonder if American culture will be perched on the edge of ruin at that point. Things have changed and devolved so much over the last four years… what might happen ten years from now? And much of what frightens me about the future is probably the means by which you came to this blog post:
There are lots of people, smart, tech-y people, talking about how bad social media is for culture. It’s bad for us collectively by the way it seeks to hook us into constant usage. It’s bad for individuals, especially teens who use it all the time. There is a lot that we know is bad about social media. And yet people still use it. And, from my perspective, it’s getting worse.
I read an interesting story recently about a man who saw the whole #fakenews phenomenon coming before the 2016 election. This is part of what I will have to describe to my children many years from now. From 2014ish onward, I saw how social media became a means of disseminating increasingly fringe varieties of “news” by people who were craving the message they passed along. And in that timeline, it seems pretty clear that agents of various interests began to jump on that propensity and toss fuel on this dumpster fire. In that Buzzfeed article, Ovadya describes the way he recognized how this could be acted on and (gulp) how it can get worse. Technology is changing so quickly that it will be easier and easier to weaponize #fakenews for all kinds of desired ends. One of the most alarming possible outcomes? “Reality apathy.” In other words, this kind of environment can lead to people checking out and saying, “Who can really know what’s real anyway?”
This does not sound like the distant future to me. It sounds like we could be seeing the edges of this right now.
Take for example, this podcast. RadioLab made this episode soon after a spate of Mueller indictments of Russian individuals who participated in disinformation campaigns, including the creation of protests, and sometimes even counter-protests on the same street, at the same time. They talked to three people who participated in one demonstration who were contacted by two “people” that aren’t actually real. The FBI is investigating this incident to trace back the origins and implications of it all.
One woman who participated in the event is aware that it now appears that neither person she talked to was real and money that helped fund the event apparently came from Russia and…. she doesn’t care. Ultimately, she says, these people didn’t create her opinion or make her a President Trump fan. The rally may have originated with these fake people, but it’s something she ultimately believes in so she just doesn’t care that she was manipulated. “I’m not stupid,” she insists. And she isn’t. She simply doesn’t care about the origins of the idea. She liked it because it served her desires.
This is typical of what I see on social media these days, especially Facebook, but not only there. People are fed articles from websites they may or may not have heard of before and, without doing any research about the actual facts of a post, they will share them. Sometimes based on the headline alone. I see both conservatives and liberals do this, by the way. More than half the time, I will read an inflammatory post, Google relevant phrases, and find that the article has, at best, grossly misrepresented the facts. I’ll then share links to show that the article is either very bad or very deceitful. You know, we can all be fooled on the Internet. I understand. It happens.
You know what I’ve seen on multiple occasions, though? People don’t care that it’s not representative of the whole truth.
This is what blows my mind, what scares me to do death. Again, I see both liberals and conservatives doing this. They simply do not care if the article or headline is false or half-true or fantasy. They will keep the link up because they like what it says in conjunction with their deeply-held beliefs. Without fail, these kinds of posts are inflammatory, purposefully enraging. They breed anxiety or disdain or shock. And people are prepared to let it stand, because they’re hungry to believe the very worst about each other.
There is a terrible kind of chicken-and-egg scenario playing out. What came first: The Liberal who turns their nose up at stupid conservatives or the Conservative who can’t stand the godless Liberal coming to steal America away? [Insert each side telling you who came first and who is really at fault.] But this absolute commitment to believe the very worst about the Other, the belief that they absolutely cannot have any access to the truth because of their bias (while having no problem believing that the bias of Our Team does not impede access to the truth), and the willingness to pass along, unexamined any kind of “news” so long as it lines up with our convictions… it’s a powerful, poisonous swill.
Our culture has drunk so deeply of it, we have sent ourselves spinning into a wasteland of mistrust and truth defined by our preferences.
Honestly, it seems to me that social media should be taken out back and Ole Yeller’d. I personally wouldn’t mind more stringent oversight, but I have already seen people screaming about the First Amendment (as if not being able to say something on a platform is a violation of your right to free speech at large). I doubt people will accept such filtering or monitoring.
What we need, as alluded to in the first link of this post, is Wisdom. The ability to discern what is true and right and to discern what should be done to use that truth at the right time. Of course, my belief is that the Church should be very helpful to culture on this point. Sadly, many, many of the people who I see participating in this urge to scorch the Other are all faithful church attenders. They see nothing wrong with flaming the Baby Murderers or the Haters of the Poor. It’s all in the name of righteousness, in the name of Jesus. So I’m not sure how quickly Wisdom will be rushing out into the streets from the Church sanctuary. I hope she pops up soon, though.
So what will I tell my kids about this time? Well I’ll probably tell them this era is why I would not give them a smartphone. Ever. Or one of those nifty virtual reality sets that everyone has. And it’s why I insist that they read actual books instead of watching Netflix all day everyday. Hopefully our conversations about the nature of God and Truth and the image of God in people will help them see how we should be different than this crazy, post-Truth world.
I’m hoping my kids will hear stories about this truth devolution and not be able to believe it was ever so bad. I really hope I’ll them how we became more committed than ever to treating our neighbors the way we want to be treated, believing the best about them until proven otherwise. I hope I’ll them that the solution to all of this on the other side surprised us all and it’s exciting to be a part of it.
That’s hopefully what I’ll tell them.
But there’s a scenario where I actually am sitting around the fire, telling them this whole era is why we live in the middle of the Canadian Rockies without electricity. So that we don’t get hooked up to the Brain Death Machines and that we can never go back except for foodstuffs and other essentials. Maybe that’s what I’ll be telling them
Ah but I’m joking. Don’t worry.
I’m mostly joking.