Children are starving in Yemen. Poverty is skyrocketing in Venezuela. Violence in Afghanistan is showing no sign of stopping. Chances are good that you’ve recently been reminded about these happenings through your Facebook, Reddit, Twitter feeds. Social media is a powerful tool for making stories heard. However, it may be delaying us from actually solving any of these problems.
Calling itself “the front page of the internet”, Reddit is primarily used to share links to online content and have discussions about it in the comment section. Generally, the posts which receive more upvotes are shown first on the page and will therefore be the most-viewed. You’re scrolling through this feed, something you have experience thousands of times in the past, scrolling over cat videos and mildly interesting plants, until you come across a news story: the Syrian regime has used chemical weapons on its own civilians. The post has about 13 thousand upvotes and nine hundred comments. You decide to read some of them. By the nature of Reddit, many of the users’ contributions are quite informative and intrigue you, so you decide to open the article. You read a couple of lines, skim through the rest, and close the page again. You find it outrageous what happened in Syria. So, you upvote the article and move on.
And soon, the Syrian civilians are forgotten as you come across another interesting news article, perhaps about ethnic cleansing in Myanmar, or maybe discussing the seemingly unending Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
In the end, you have upvoted several article, perhaps sent a few links to friends, maybe even posted one of them to another subreddit or another platform, preferably of course to Facebook. But ultimately, that’s all that you do. You don’t take action to change anything on the ground. Don’t end up calling your national politicians, participating in a demonstration or even reading up on any of the topics in-depth.
Social media therefore is simultaneously a blessing and a curse. A blessing, for it has become easier than ever before to tell stories which must be told and to give them the global reach which they ought to achieve. Who would have known about Chinese concentration camps aimed at a Muslim minority in the far western province of their country had it not been for the publicity it received through online networks? A blessing also because it allows people to organize into groups and call for change much more forcefully (but only should the pressure be high enough) – we saw this during the Arab spring, and this is also the reason why social media is so heavily censored by many of the world’s authoritarian regimes.
But it’s also a curse, for many of the same reasons that it must be considered a blessing. The sheer volume of content (the word “information” was intentionally avoided in this context) is difficult for our brains to process. And the number of different news issues which one comes across while browsing these social media sites is so overwhelming that there is virtually no way to create a personal prioritization or to rank what is most important – all these issues require urgent action, but as an individual, you cannot act on all of them. So instead, you leave them a like, or an upvote, or retweet them, and leave it at that.
Had it only been the children suffocated by poison gas in a vicious attack and had that been the main news story with little else on your feed, it could be argued that it would have been more likely for you to take real action. Perhaps you would have done more in-depth research, perhaps you would have supported a campaign by Human Rights Watch or Amnesty International, perhaps you would have partaken in a protest. All of these possible outcomes certainly would have been more likely had it been the only story of death and misery you had been confronted with that day. With tens or hundreds of disasters constantly in our conscience, however, it is overwhelming to the point that we are essentially paralyzed and may end up knowing more, but less in depth, feeling more compelled to act, but doing less. We are in a constantly outraged state, yet we are too outraged to engage in activism – instead, we practice “passivism”.
That is not to say that social media should be abolished, or that the news and social media should be segregated. Not only is that entirely impossible, for the line between matters of personal importance and what qualifies as news is naturally blurred. It would also be a great loss for all involved, for, whether we like it or not, the internet and more recently social media have completely revolutionized the way we share, create and deliver news. It has led to the democratization of the news cycle. But as with democracy, this has led to new responsibilities and challenges which were managed for us previously. It is now on us, the consumers, to be aware of this, and to adapt our way of receiving information accordingly. Else, we run the risk of becoming metaphorically blind.