Listen! Don’t Dis ‘Em!

Posted on November 2, 2016 by

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I dare you, right now, turn to the person closest to you and call them out on their bad hair, or their non-name brand shoes. Now take it a step further and maybe shout some curse words. Try and accuse them of being insensitive to your mother’s gluten allergy with those wheat colored shoes, how dare they! Go all out and use those fancy words your teacher made you learn. Most people cannot bring themselves to do either “IRL” (in real life) so how come we all do it online? The internet has gone from “maybe a fad” 20 years ago to completely dominating our lives today, and it provides a mask for people from both sides of the extreme spectrum to hide behind and spew extremist rhetoric with no filter.

Look at your Facebook friends right now. How many agree completely with your political views and opinions? How many people have you blocked this past election because they were on the wrong side of the political fence? These are called filter bubbles where we live completely surrounded by those who share our opinions. Sometimes, we deliberately lock ourselves in little digital rooms surrounded by everyone we love except Uncle Bob from Iowa and Cousin Xenny from California (or exclusively with one or the other). For the most part, it’s social media’s own algorithm. Have you ever accidentally liked an ad for say, TOMS shoes and the next day, Facebook suggested you like a Bernie Sanders support page? While Facebook’s algorithm is designed specifically to tailor products and ideas to you, it all depends on how much you shield yourself from opposing views. In a 2015 study conducted by University of Michigan researchers, they found that

The media that individuals consume on Facebook depends not only on what their friends share, but also on how the News Feed ranking algorithm sorts these articles, and what individuals choose to read. The order in which users see stories in the News Feed depends on many factors, including how often the viewer visits Facebook, how much they interact with certain friends, and how often users have clicked on links to certain websites in News Feed in the past.

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“That’s why I keep seeing all those [bleep]ing Buzfeed articles!” -My 15yr old brother.

Basically, the more you interact with your friends who love you and support your belief that President Obama is indeed our reptilian overlord, the more conspiracy theory pages you’ll be bombarded by. But why are we as a society so ready to fight anyone who doesn’t agree with our completely airtight ideas? Well, it’s polarization itself that has made us more stubborn, which leads to further polarization and the widening of a rift that’s already of epic proportions. This rift leads people to become more hostile and dead set on their views, breeding animosity and a myriad of insults. The fact that we are all hiding behind computer screens when we feel compelled to bash the other side makes the pettiness worse. It is frankly a lot easier to tweet out insults at a political opponent than to do it to their face.

Has the current election bred a culture of insults and animosity? Well, yes, but insulting each other is in our nature. In fact, we have always loved to insult each other, as Huffington post writer Paul Blanchard puts it, “We’ve been insulting others since we first said ‘Johnny smells’ when we were six years old and in Primary School.”

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Burr and Hamilton, political beef before Twitter.

Insult driven political campaigns are nothing new either. Who knows what Martha Washington may have said about Thomas Jefferson if she had a Twitter?  Well, back in the day, it took a lot of time to insult ye olde political opponent. Even with the invention of television, if a candidate wanted to cry about how SNL made fun of them, they would have to wait until the next scheduled televised event then cry to millions on national television. Now, they can just do it at 3am from the comfort of their silk sheets. That same Huffington post article points out how easy it is to sum up all that pent up rage into 140 characters. Also, people listen. If you were to go on national TV to bash anyone who doesn’t fully support equal redistribution of wealth, then you’d have to hope someone is watching that PBS night show that gave you a spot. Everyone has a Twitter, so why not rally up communism there and pray McCarthy’s ghost doesn’t come for you?

We love to insult each other so much, and it’s so easy now, that we even have specific codes for doing so. Don’t know what a noob is you noob? Then get off Xbox live! We also turn to communicating with captioned funny pictures, or memes. Memes have become a part of our everyday life. Personally, it’s easier to swallow such a divisive election if the debate highlights are peppered with snarkily captioned images of key moments. But what happens when a meme turns into a hate symbol?

Recently, a cartoon frog high schoolers referenced when something inconvenient happened has made the same list as historically politically extreme symbols. How could we allow ourselves to continue to breed a culture that takes frog cartoons and blows them up to insult millions? First, it is important to understand that, not all Pepes. There are many variations of the Pepe the Frog Meme, a cartoon frog created in 2005.  The ones flagged by the Anti-Defamation League are those of racist or obscene nature. These are images that specifically target a race or group, such as Pepes in brown-face captioned with the n-word or Pepes in KKK robes. It’s fascinating how we turn to insult mass groups of people and peddle extremist agendas with memes. It really says a lot about our society and what this digital age could turn to.

Should we be afraid? Yes and no. The same Journalist’s Resource article that talks about Facebook’s formula mentions:

In 2013, researchers at Carnegie Mellon University, Stanford and Microsoft Research analyzed anonymized browsing data from more than 1.2 million Web users and concluded that fears over an increasingly personalized Internet could be overblown: Only a “relatively small amount of online news consumption is driven by the more polarized channels, social and search, and opinion pieces — which are typically the focus of laboratory studies — constitute just 6% of consumption relating to world or national news…. [W]e find that individuals typically consume descriptive reporting, and do so by directly visiting a handful of their preferred news outlets.” Further, while social channels and search can lead to “higher segregation” and filter bubbles, those methods of news discovery can also be “associated with higher exposure to opposing perspectives, in contrast to filter-bubble fears.”

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Love thy (politically opposite) neighbor.

It might be smarter to not block that Bernie bro, but listen to them instead. Part of adult life is learning how to deal with opinions that differ from your own and learn to deal with them, maybe learn something from them. Think those Trump supporters spew illogical statements? Try listening to their fears and what causes them, then you might better  understand why  they back him over Hillary. Should we go China and ban everything but the government approved Facebook ripoff? No. Social media is a tool that is evolving and growing with us. Entire social movements were born on the internet on both sides of the political spectrum, as responses to each other and the world around us. To organize thousands, the Civil Rights leaders had to go through massive grassroots efforts, knocking on doors, mailing out flyers, the works. Now, a Black Lives Matter rally location could be posted on Facebook mere hours after the event that warrants it happens, that draws thousands nationally. Social media is a power that comes with great responsibility, and we have to be the Spiderman that knows how to use it responsibly. Instead of insulting each other, let’s listen and meet somewhere in the middle. Let’s keep the memes witty and inclusive. As this tool evolves, let us as a society finds ways to harness its power for good and not pettiness.

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