In Our Words: Social media whirlwind can debase debate

Facebook is hell on earth and I’d be glad to see it die.

I don’t really actually mean that, but now that I’ve got your attention, let’s actually get to what I want to talk to you about.

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As I’m sure you’ve noticed, there’s currently a furor surrounding the current prime minister and whether or not he and people around him acted inappropriately in a federal court case involving Quebecois corporation SNC-Lavalin.

Whether or not those allegations are true or not is a little beyond the scope of a guy writing a newspaper in a town of 5,000-ish people with a weird name. That’s not the point.

Last week, a man in Nipawin was arrested after making death threats toward the prime minister and other parliamentarians on a phone call to an unnamed government agency.

This is not normal activity.

What made me even more shocked is the number of people in the comment sections of stories about the threat seeming to agree with him, as if someone making a boneheaded political move means we should shoot them on sight with no trial or investigation.

What kind of maniac would think that was right? Do people really think calling for the murder of Trudeau or any other political figure is actually helping things?

The problem is more insidious than that. I think social media has made us angrier, lazier, more reactionary and less compassionate and empathetic, not only by accident, but by design.

Facebook cannot be relied on for providing you news. It is essentially the world’s largest advertising company. Facebook does not care if the stories you share on it are true, false, blue or on fire – the clicks are what matters.

Ever notice on Facebook, when you go to like a story, you get all those options for reactions – the angry face, the heart, those things? Facebook only tracks how many reactions those stories get, without regarding any actual conversation.

Let’s say someone makes a normal comment, civil and defensible. That will maybe get a few likes, a heart or two if that person is lucky.

Now let’s say someone calls for someone to be killed or something else deliberately provocative. That’s going to get a lot of those red angry faces – but to Facebook, an angry face is worth just as much as a heart, so that angry response goes to the top of the comments, burying anything rational.

I did the same thing, intentionally, in the first sentence of this column – clickbait in print form. People can be manipulated into reading things, clicking links and viewing pages they may not have otherwise seen due to an emotional appeal, anger or outrage.

The end result doesn’t matter. The clicks do.

I always marvel at the irony of seeing some of the same adults who told me “don’t believe everything you see online” when I was young now sharing articles claiming that the prime minister supports ISIS, or wants to take away guns, or has some crazy conspiracy to turn your children gay.

I’m not particularly crazy about the guy either, but come on – you’ve got to be better than that. How did you not follow your own advice?

When you’re speaking face-to-face with someone you disagree with, there are certain terms and conditions that you usually agree with. You might not have signed the social contract, but it’s well in effect. You can’t just spit on them or pee on their shoes. That’s out of bounds. You can’t just drop in slurs or make threats. Trying to start a riot is, more often than not, frowned upon.

My idea is that, by taking away the thought that you might be yelled at, threatened or socked in the face and providing incentive for commenters and content producers to produce even more polarizing things, social media has debased civility and the very idea of debate.

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