“Social media is destroying the fabric of society.”
My friends smile wanly as I repeat this personal lament. They know I have a penchant for hyperbole, and they have quietly put up with my idiosyncratic refusal to join them on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram.
But look around at the number of people in public spaces who stare intently at their devices, ignoring those around them: young mothers at Walmart who seem oblivious to toddlers tugging at their legs; families who are unaware of the others sitting at the table when they dine out; spectators at sporting events or concerts who sit in expensive seats with their heads buried in their phones.
And there are undeniable social repercussions. Young people have trouble looking us in the eye. They carry their phones always at theready so they can quickly glance at a screen, avoiding having to acknowledge the person approaching them.
Many bright and eager young employees never learned basic phone etiquette, such as politely asking if they can take a message or offering to get information the caller requests. I suppose they must think, “Why are these stupid people calling anyway? Everything you need to know can be found in a quick search of the Internet.”
Yet, it took the shooting at the Orlando nightclub to make me realize that my fears about social media and the Internet may not be exaggerated.
We will never know for sure just what motivated Omar Mateen to murder 49 innocent people at a gay nightclub on Latin Night June 12. But it appears we do know that he was inspired at least in part by online posts by extremists who identify with groups such as al-Qaida, Hezbollah or ISIS, posts urging susceptible individuals to incite mayhem among peaceful, unsuspecting citizens.
Easy access to this sort of inflammatory rhetoric will certainly encourage others similarly afflicted with unrepressed anger and self-loathing to commit other heinous acts of carnage.
For this is exactly the type of fear and chaos that these extremists are trying to provoke. As their ground battles in Syria and elsewhere become less and less successful, they will continue to find other successes simply sitting in front of their computers, tweeting, chatting online, sharing violent videos of unspeakable acts. And all around the world there are an untold number of mentally and emotionally troubled individuals — many with ready access to high-powered firearms — who will surely respond.
Before everyone became a published author or filmmaker thanks to the Internet, these types of seditious messages had limited audiences. Multiple editors would review the content of material produced for public consumption, ensure the accuracy of the message, consider the tone and the consequences, think about possible victims or even legal ramifications.
Personally printed tracts could realistically only be distributed to a handful of people. Today, a message that at the time of our nation’s founding would have taken days to reach a single recipient can be broadcast to the world in seconds.
And almost no one considers the consequences. Or, even worse, they relish them.
At least one family has decided to fight back. The Washington Post has reported that the family of a student killed in the November Paris attacks has sued Twitter, Facebook and Google, saying they “knowingly permitted the terrorist group ISIS to use their social networks as a tool for spreading extremist propaganda, raising funds and attracting new recruits.”
So, yes, the Internet can, in its own insidious way, play a very destructive role in society. It makes it oh, so easy to share unsavory or incendiary information, to spread hate, to bully, to stoke rage among others.
You don’t have to remind me of all the good that comes from the wealth of information available on the Internet: the way it has at times made us more efficient, more productive, more informed, more closely connected to our friends and family. But all of that comes at a dire cost.
We don’t see each other anymore. We don’t talk. We don’t solve problems together. We read only news and information that aligns with the views we already have. We more easily ostracize others. We isolate ourselves.
And we become more dangerous.
Sallie Showalter, a communications consultant lives in Georgetown. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.