Deep in my Facebook bubble, I lounge in the echo chamber of my opinions. The occasional news items that pop up reinforce my leftie politics, lulling me into a false sense of hope. My blocked word list on Twitter grows longer by the day, cushioning my interactions and filling my timeline instead with nature, flowers and birds. My Instagram feed shows people out and about adventuring, a daily inspiration, where news and politics are a world away, and craggy mountains, mud and storms are occasionally interspersed with an asmr soap video (guilty pleasure), or a guinea pig or two.
I’ve spent hours curating this safe space online. Recovering from depression meant that I wanted space to breathe, without that extra load of daily despair from the news outlets, without the judgement, division and disagreement of generally any social media network. I wanted to be soft. I wanted to be cushioned.
The work it takes to keep a safe, happy space online is hard going. Anything that begins to produce a stress response goes straight on the block list. A quick look down my Twitter blocked words (great feature) is a reflection of every recent news story in the UK. Antivaxxers. Brexit. Daily Fail. Murdoch. Shot. Murder. Fracking. UKIP. Rees-Mogg. Racism. Facist. Bloody Trump. Bloody Farage. And it goes on, and on, and on.
I quite like my little safe bubble. But the feeling that I need to create a shield from this division in society is troubling in itself. The recent exposure of Facebook and Cambridge Analytica shone a light on this dark undercurrent flowing underneath the seemingly innocuous face of social media networks. Being open to manipulation is a problem, especially when the networks themselves don’t know they’re being manipulated. If they don’t realise, what chance have the rest of us got?
Online, we are terrified of anyone who has a different view than us. They are wrong. They are bad people. Keyboard warriors and trolls spend hours, typing furiously, in the vain attempt to convince others that their ideology is entirely incorrect. Our bubble is the right bubble. Anyone who differs is an outsider. The problem is that we are fixating on just one facet of someone’s entirety, magnified and overblown. Their opinion becomes all they are, and if that opinion is different than ours, well. It’s fuel for the fire. Social media networks need us to be comfortable on their platforms. They want us to have a ‘nice time’. So they feed us more of what we agree with – meaning that whenever we come across something that doesn’t fit in with our softened worldview, then the reaction is all the more jarring.
In real life, my friends have lots of different opinions. We disagree on politics. We disagree on immigration. We disagree on Brexit. We disagree on food choices. But this disagreement somehow isn’t as vitriolic as it is behind the screen and keyboard. We see the whole person, not just a single viewpoint. Before social media, differences of opinions were discussed face to face. We didn’t hate each other for our differing beliefs on free movement. I remember family gatherings where opposing political viewpoints were argued passionately, commonly fuelled by a good curry and a good whisky, long into the night. This didn’t result in fallings out. Opinions were just that. Opinion. Not a division.
I have a sneaking suspicion that by blocking out everything that I don’t agree with online, it’s taking me away from the reality of society. I can spend days watching safe, fluffy content… but how is hiding away from real life helping me understand the viewpoints of those with different experiences that me? Are we all hiding away, creating our own realities – and are these realities fuelling the increasing divisiveness of recent days?
It seems that there is a rising incidence of hate crime, specifically here in the UK (40% increase in religious hate crime between 2016/17 and 2017/18) and over the pond in the US. From people being physically attacked because of their sexuality to terrifyingly ominous reports of racism, a culture of division is being seeded. Where has this come from? Is extreme rhetoric becoming more normalised – and is our increasing use of social media as a communication platform contributing to this? It seems we’re all just shouting our opinions into the void.
I’m as guilty of this as anyone. I’m a liberal, green-voting leftie. I believe in freedom of movement, welcome immigration, and kind of wish everyone would just stop caring about money and just grow vegetables instead. I love the idea of Europe and am bereft that the UK is leaving. So, I share all the things that reinforce this view. I hide pro-brexit posts. I mute everyone that wants to leave the EU. I just don’t want to hear it – and that’s part of the problem. One sidedness is becoming the norm, and when one-sidedness meets someone with a large platform, that singular viewpoint begins to be the loudest voice. Take Farage for example.
Of course, I’ve blocked anything pro-Farage, so ironically I can only really look at this from my one-sided view. It’s scary just how scared I am of an opposing view. And if the majority of the public are thinking along the same lines, well. We have a problem. And this problem is becoming normal. Extreme views are becoming more frequent in society. Those with the loudest voice are having more influence. There’s no tempering of extremist ideas. Online, extremism can snowball – and cross the line into the offline world.
Loud voices are promoting Islamophobia and antisemitism. Loud voices are repressing women. Loud voices are taking away the rights of LGBTQI+ people. Loud voices are promoting racism. Loud voices are making divisiveness normal. Loud voices are telling us ‘it’s us or them’.
When the ‘us and them’ culture becomes normal online, it begins to become normal offline. We’re scared of ‘other’ and this fuels misplaced aggression and hatred in everyday life. What can we do? How do we put a halt to the rise of schismatic groups and begin to reintroduce tolerance?
Sadly I haven’t the answers. I think walls and barriers have been built on fear and misunderstanding, so for me, something I can do is to learn from the opposite viewpoint and try, at first, to understand. We need to stand up to hate together, no matter our backgrounds or beliefs. Sharing opinion and discussion of opposing viewpoints can go a long way towards breaking down the polarity we seem to be experiencing. Promoting understanding and peaceable coexistence may begin to sow a few seeds of harmony amongst us.
And if we need anything right now, we need that.