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In many ways, we’ve reached a tipping point with social media. All of the major social media giants – including Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and Instagram – are now facing some sort of existential crisis. With every new violation of personal privacy and with mounting evidence that social media is responsible for many of the ills afflicting modern society – including a deep rise in partisan rancor – it’s perhaps no surprise that top thought leaders are now openly talking about the perils of the modern information age.
Barack Obama warns about social media
Case in point: former President Barack Obama, speaking at an annual conference sponsored by Salesforce, suggested that social media might actually be one of the three biggest problems facing modern society. (Climate change and the rise of inequality between nations were the other two major concerns.) According to Obama, social media has led to a divisive split within society, in which there is no longer a common reality uniting both sides.
In short, both sides see things so differently that it’s impossible to have rational debates anymore. If you say anything good about President Trump, then you’re a racist, a bigot, a sexist and a cretin. Or, even worse, you’re an “agent of Russia.” And, conversely, if you say anything bad about President Trump, then you’re certainly not a patriot. Even worse, you’re a “socialist” or a “Communist” and maybe even a “traitor.”
As a result, says Obama, people who watch Fox News and people who read the New York Times are living in “a different reality.” Without actually mentioning President Donald Trump by name, the inference from Barack Obama was clear: things have gotten a lot more uncivil, rancorous and, quite frankly, dangerous since 2016. Things have gotten to a point, in fact, that even mainstream media publications like The New Yorker are warning of the prospect of “civil war” if things don’t calm back down. The upcoming 2020 election could be the final spark that sends the whole house up in flames.
How to bridge the social media divide
In short, says Obama, “We are siloing ourselves off from each other in ways that are dangerous.” At this point, it would be naïve to think that it’s possible to change anyone’s mind on political issues. But does that mean that both sides still can’t be civil to each other? When holiday meals and family reunions turn into political minefields, you know there’s something very wrong. It’s the whole Civil War “brother against brother” problem, updated for the modern information age.
The only solution might be finding some common topic or theme that can unite everyone. At one time, it was thought that sports might be one way to unite people. But we now live in an era where even the National Anthem has become a source of rancor, and a person like Ellen DeGeneres can’t even sit next to former President George Bush at a Cowboys game without causing a national scandal.
A generation ago, says Obama, TV and sitcom culture was a way for people to unite together over shared experiences. There were only 3 major TV stations, and only a handful of popular shows, and TV became a way for people to unite around the water cooler. But not so in the digital information age, when platforms like Netflix and Hulu have forever fragmented the viewing experience.
So that perhaps only leaves a handful of other options left. One of these is uniting around a common external enemy. In non-democratic nations, this is the usual way to rally a population around an unpopular leader during difficult periods. So it’s not completely out of the question that external war with any of the rivals of the U.S. – including China, Russia or Iran – might become a new rallying point for the nation and the only way to avoid a full-scale Civil War. To avoid this worst-case scenario, then, it’s time to re-think ways to bridge the social media divide.