Why is social media so poisonous?

Last updated 13:16 15/02/2017
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Don’t feed the trolls: it's up to everyone to make social networks supportive.

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Social media is losing its lightheartedness by the day – not because of the platforms themselves, but because of the way users take advantage of anonymity to express vitriol and division.

Click on the comment section of a news article posted to Facebook or Twitter and you’ll find biased and unsubstantiated remarks and insults written by individuals lacking perspective and empathy.

The simple solution is to ignore it, but the question is: how did social media become so poisonous?

My first taste of social media was back in 2007 when I signed up for Bebo, which, as I remember it, revolved around posting quotes and uploading scanned photo-booth images. Today, my social media feeds are filled with unproductive arguments, divisive rhetoric and news that’s either one-sided or dubbed ‘fake’.

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Facebook attempted to combat the spread of ‘fake news’ by creating a tool allowing users to report potentially fabricated stories, and it says it’s working with global fact-checking organisations to establish the authenticity of articles.

Still, fabricated stories continue to circulate. Recently, conservative US news website Breitbart published a story claiming a “mob” chanting in Arabic had set fire to a church on New Year’s Eve in Dortmund, Germany. After the report was widely shared, police in the city clarified that no “extraordinary or spectacular” incidents had occurred.

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Social media and politics are now inextricable; Donald Trump himself believes social media is what helped him win the election.

Journalist John Lloyd, co-founder of the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at the University of Oxford, agrees:

“A politician or business leader or a celebrity speaking on television usually addresses the masses through an interlocutor - a presenter, a journalist. On social media, the same figure is talking to you, on your cellphone, through your Twitter feed. You - we - are a party of one.”


But direct contact to the public comes with direct responses. When a media organisation posts an article to Facebook or Twitter related to Trump’s cabinet picks, for example, the comment section blows up with users desperate for their opinion to be heard - but there’s never any closure to the discussion. Often, the comments descend into belittlement, low blows, and attacks on age, gender, ethnicity, physical appearance and social status.

Should social media sites remove these comment sections? That would be controversial, removing the right to freedom of speech – an ideal vehemently defended by the Western world. But does that mean they should ignore the slew of hatred and ignorance that’s spreading?

Social networks are clearly struggling to balance upholding free speech with policing the intimidation and aggression that make many fearful of speaking freely.

Twitter have announced new measures to crack down on “abusive accounts”. The company’s engineering VP Ed Ho said Twitter is “taking steps to identify people who have been permanently suspended and stop them from creating new accounts.” He said this “focuses more effectively on some of the most prevalent and damaging forms of behaviour, particularly accounts that are created only to abuse and harass others."

It’s a genuine attempt by Twitter, but it doesn’t resolve the bigger issue. The sooner people understand that nothing is solved by insulting those who disagree with them, the sooner social media can become a place where everyone can engage with content productively.

A mature person can respect another’s opinion and show professionalism in a conversation.

In the words of Abraham Lincoln, “We should be too big to take offence and too noble to give it.”

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