The 'Not-So-Social' Media: Truth And Consequences

The term social media is a misnomer.
01/10/2017 10:47 am ET Updated Jan 10, 2017

It is the year 2017 and the social media rules. For many, this form of electronic or internet-based communications has become the principal source for information and means of relating with one another.

A problem with this is that the communications through this media is sometimes not so social. For a variety of reasons, the “not so social” media can be harmful to America and Americans. The “not so social” media ranges in form from anti-social to unsocial to asocial.

Antisocial Communications

Some anti-social communications is deliberately designed to enlist and engage others in acts of violence. ISIS is the most prominent practitioner of this form of social media. A 2015 study found that pro-ISIS messages were being posted at 90,000 per day.

Other anti-social communications is designed to fuel hatred and anger against particular groups. In the United States, this form of social media is practiced by the alt-right. The New York Times defines alt-right as “a racist, far-right fringe movement that embraces an ideology of white nationalism and is anti-immigrant, anti-Semitic and anti-feminist.”

Attendees at the alt-right group National Policy Institute conference convened after Donald Trump’s election as President drew national attention with their Nazi-like “Hail Trump, hail our people, hail victory” salute. According to Politico, one of the new “alt-right sites” that is gaining traction with its followers for publishing “fake news” is Gab.

On a less organized level, there are individuals and small groups that use the social media to promote anti-social acts. One of the most recent examples of this was a live Facebook video broadcast by four young blacks in Chicago showing them physically abusing a white special needs teen.

Unsocial Communications

In contrast to anti-social communications which is segregationist and separatist in nature, unsocial communications is simply a form of discourse that is rude, crude or false.

One need only read some of the comments posted in response to a blog on a sensitive or controversial topic and the exchanges between those persons with differences of opinion with either the blogger or each other to see this form of unsocial media in its unsavory and less than radiant glory.

Or, sadly, one need only read many of the tweets from the President-elect from the time that he was accusing President Obama of not being born in America, to demeaning his opponents in the primary and presidential campaigns, to missives sent out from Trump Tower, Mar-a-Alago or points in between, since he has been elected to office.

These tweets are numerous. A few selected recent examples include:

Wow, the ratings are in and Arnold Schwarzenegger got “swamped” (or destroyed) by comparison to the ratings machine, DJT.
The “Intelligence” briefing on so-called “Russian hacking” was delayed until Friday, perhaps more time needed to build a case. Very strange! (The briefing was not delayed. It was held as originally scheduled.)
Only reason the hacking of the poorly defended DNC is discussed is that the loss by the Dems was so big that they are totally embarrassed!
Having a good relationship with Russia is a good thing, not a bad thing. Only “stupid” people, or fools, would think that it is bad!

Drawing upon Mr. Trump’s insights unsocial communications is a bad thing not a good thing. Who could possibly think otherwise?

While not as directly harmful as anti-social communications, unsocial communications diminishes and coarsens our national dialogue. A lack of civility in the tone and tenor of messaging reduces or eliminates the possibility of meaningful two-way communications.

Asocial Communications

In contrast to anti-social communications or unsocial communications which are intentional, asocial communications is normally unintended. It is a general consequence of both the nature and construct of the social media itself.

Communications through the social media can bring us closer together as citizens of this country and the American community or it can move us further apart. It can enhance the nation’s social capital if it is pro-social. It can detract from it if it is asocial. At this point, it appears that the asocial end of that continuum is prevailing.

Social capital is the connections among individuals, social networks and the norms of reciprocity and trustworthiness that arise from them. Harvard Professor Robert D. Putnam is the nation’s foremost authority on social capital. He asserts that social capital is a key component for sustaining and building democracy

In his classic book, Bowling Alone, published in 2000, Putnam identified and examined seven measures of social capital: (1) political participation, (2) civic participation, (3) religious participation, (4) workplace networks, (5) informal networks, (6) mutual trust and honesty, and (7) altruism and volunteering. He concluded that, in the last quarter of the 20th century, we had lost substantial capital in all of those areas

If that was the case back then, one can only wonder what he would find if Putnam were to replicate his study now - in this 17th year of the first quarter of the 21st century. We believe that social capital has continued to decline. And, that the use of and the abuse of social media through anti-social communications and unsocial communications has contributed to that decline.

It could be argued that the social media is the ultimate social capital tool. And, indeed, it does have that potential.

The number of sites and applications for social networking are mind boggling. They allow people to connect electronically. These connections can be made easily, frequently, and at a low cost in terms of time and dollars spent. The question is whether they make us more connected in human terms and build social capital. We believe the answer is “not yet.”

In fact, they can create the potential for social entropy. We could mistake constant contact with authentic communication. We could perceive the state of virtual connectedness as the existence of an actual connection. We could substitute superficial and shallow exchanges for legitimate interaction.

Compare a handshake or a hug to a text message or a tweet. We could be sacrificing part of our humanity on technology’s cross. Therein lies the rub.

In this day and age, many of us get our news, watch TV shows, surf, download games, and communicate – all using the internet and social media. These are essentially singular activities. They emanate from one person and can be done in isolated solitude – one singular sensation. As with television, the time that could be spent in this splendid isolation is only restricted by the need to sleep.

Making Social Media More Pro-Social

How can we change the current asocial condition of the social media to make it more pro-social and use it as a positive force for the development of social capital? Action has already begun with some of the major social sites such as Facebook, Twitter, and Reddit doing a better job of policing and taking down inappropriate posts such as “fake news.”

That is only a start, however. What is required, at this juncture, is a reactive initiative and a from all who use the social media – a concerned users or citizens’ movement, if you will.

The reactive initiative should be directed at the anti-social and unsocial communication on social media. It should consist of holding up a mirror and calling out those communications for what they are.

This should be done in a civilized and dignified manner. For example, the New York Times and other major traditional news outlets have decided that whenever they use the term “alt-right” they will do so by giving a definition of what the alt-right is.

As an individual level example, consider Arnold Schwarzenegger’s tweet to Donald Trump’s tweet regarding Schwarzenegger’s Apprentice performance rating. Schwarzenegger responded, “There is nothing more important than people’s work. I wish you the best of luck and I hope you will WORK for all of the people as aggressively as you worked for your ratings.”

The proactive initiative should be directed at asocial communication. It should concentrate on exploiting the full power and potential of the internet and social media to develop social capital and build community. There are already many positive activities taking place on social media that can be replicated and new ones that can be added.

For example, Giving Tuesday celebrated on the Tuesday after Thanksgiving, is a “global day fueled by the power of social media and collaboration.” Collaboration is the key word there. In order to be uniting rather than dividing in terms of community building that collaboration must be bi- or nonpartisan.

Here is a thought in this regard. For some time, we have been advocating a national holiday called “Interdependence Day.” What about making that day a social media event celebrating America’s diversity, the contribution of immigrants to the country’s growth, and raising funds to support cross-cultural and inter-faith community building?

What about having one day a month on the social media dedicated to a call for citizen action in one of the seven social capital areas? There are already tools that have been developed that could be used for this purpose.

In conclusion, as it stands today, the term social media is a misnomer. What’s in a name? In this instance, we believe everything.

Social media: Let’s take that name and better align and improve practices to make it an accurate descriptor. Let’s make social media the go-to resource for education, collaboration and mobilization for the public good. The United States and its citizens will be better off for it.

We understand the irony of our using the social media to present this argument. But, then again, what better place to do so than in the lion’s den?

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