When Social Media and Politics Become A Toxic Combination
People often say that it’s important to be aware of the political issues of the day. Some would even consider it a civic duty. We hope that humanity is evolving, becoming more fair and just. We pay attention because we want humanity to do better, but when are we committing too much of our time, energy, and even identity to politics?
Social media is the ultimate rabbit hole. Social media companies make money by selling advertising space, and user data. The more time a person spends on social media and the more things they click on or post, the more advertising space and info these companies can sell. To get people to spend time clicking away, social media platforms are programmed to show content that is similar to what users have interacted with previously and things that are likelier to get clicks, such as content that will make people feel fearful and/or outraged.
Social media algorithms create a political echo chamber. As you continue to click, the websites show you more and more of what you already think, what you’re afraid of, what makes you so mad, and less and less of other perspectives. Pretty soon, all you see online is confirmation that everything you think is right and an extremely polarized world full of people who either agree with you or are the most heinous and extreme examples of other political perspectives, with nothing in between. Comment sections can easily add fuel to the fire, as a loud minority of people use the distance and anonymity of the internet to verbally abuse people who think differently than they do.
The social media rabbit-hole is especially troublesome for people who are isolated or have other mental health challenges. The picture of the world as portrayed by a social media algorithm is easily countered by pleasurable relationships with people in real life, but many people who struggle with relationships and mental health don’t have the kind of relationships that would counteract this bleak picture. Faced with a corrupt, angering, and frightening world, such people may find themselves seeking out relationships only with people who agree with them, with people who confirm their dark view of humanity, or perhaps avoiding relationships with others as much as possible. People who tend to isolate themselves and who struggle with mental health issues often have beliefs that the world of people isn’t such a safe and friendly place, in one way or another, and the world as portrayed by social media reinforces that view.
The polarized version of the world that our social media platforms create for us is bad for mental health, bad for relationships, and bad for community. When decent people stop seeking out other decent people, there’s more loneliness in the world. When all we hear is the people at the extremes, we get paranoid. When we stay home, away from the people right outside our door, our ability to relate atrophies and we forget that most people are decent, even when they think differently. Life is complicated and our beliefs are driven by our rational thought much less than we’d like to imagine. Educate yourself, be aware of the important issues, but also be aware how your time on social media is impacting you. Spend time outside, spend time with people in your community, and remember that as we practice listening, communicating, negotiating, taking care of, and enjoying one another, we make the world a better place.