Toxic Timeline

Photo by ahmad gunnaivi on Unsplash

My job requires me to use social media. My place in modern society makes it all but inevitable. My presence there helps pay my bills and it helps feed my family. I consider myself a social media user, fan and vocal advocate. But wow that is a difficult stance to retain right now.

Don’t get me wrong. The social media space has always had more than its fair share of unpleasantness and hostility. It’s more than five years since I was forced to take court action against an online stalker who — by that time — had pursued, harassed and threatened me for more than two years.

But today it seems that my timeline is more filed with hatred, bile and vitriol than ever before. It is crammed with opinion and conspiracy theory presented as fact; extremist rhetoric as lifestyle advice; bigotry and zealotry as everyday conversation.

Photo by NordWood Themes on Unsplash

Now it is easy to point at the likes of Facebook and Twitter and to label them as purveyors of Fake News and a delivery mechanism for hate speech.

But if you know anything about social media — and I know enough to get by — then you will know that social media algorithms exist to present individuals with what they want to see.

These platforms learn your likes and they give you more of what you want. If your past reading and engagement has shown a bias towards pro-life, pro-gay rights, pro-feminism, pro-racial equality or pro just about anything else, this will be reflected in what you see in the future. In fact, these algorithms are so good that they make it virtually impossible to find an opposing view. If you require balance or want to see an argument from both sides, you will need to go seek it out for yourself.

Now the reasons for this are not there to make you feel all warm and fuzzy. Nor are they there to protect your possibly delicate sensibilities. There is a hard-nosed business model that sits behind all of this.

Platforms like Facebook and LinkedIn are bankrolled by advertising. So it is in their best interest to keep you looking at their site for as long as is humanly possible. If they keep serving you with your favourite kind of content, you will likely stick around longer and — in turn — they can charge more for their advertising by demonstrating greater levels of engagement. The last thing they want to do — generally — is to present you with content that runs entirely contrary to your known likes and preferences; content that will make you move on or leave the platform entirely.

All of which makes the current parlous state of my personal timeline even more remarkable and all the more depressing. Given all that Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn knows about me and their proven ability to filter my content so that it is tailor-made for my, the fact that my timeline is now filled with such anger and hatred can mean only one thing. I apparently know some awful people.

Photo by Clay Banks on Unsplash

Now I am writing this in the immediate aftermath of the murder of George Floyd by a US police officer, and amidst a period when the Black Lives Matter movement is at its loudest and most divisive. As I have come to expect, my timeline across various social media platforms has been filled — pretty much equally — with raised black fists and white Nazi salutes. The opinions accompanying those images are equally monochromatic; equally polarised.

But this is not a new phenomenon. Last year, I posted on my Instagram feed a photo of a digger decked out in rainbow colours to mark the start of Pride week. In less than 24 hours, I had waved a not-very-fond farewell to more than 2,000 followers, many of whom left in their wake vitriolic messages that verged upon hate speech.

It is tempting to point to divisive outside influences as the rationale behind such outpourings of anger and hatred; to suggest that the Brexit referendum here in the UK and the Trump administration in the US has somehow created this hot-bed of disagreement and discordance. But I don’t buy it.

I don’t buy it in the same way that I don’t buy hip-hop’s role in gang culture and gun crime. That violent video games are a pre-cursor to violent crime. That horror movies are the gateway drug for would-be murderers. Music, video games and movies do not create society. They reflect it. The fact is that millions of people consume this kind of content without getting the urge to join a gang, buy a gun and to kill people.

In my opinion, this is a chicken and egg situation. A situation in which the chicken has grown fat upon a diet of race, religion, sex and gender bias it has chosen for itself. Calls for Scottish independence, the erection of border walls between the US and Mexico, US and Chinese trade wars and the murder of George Floyd are the festering eggs it has laid.

Does mainstream and social media fan the flames? Unquestionably. Do they add fuel to the fire? Without a doubt. Social media is to hate speech what oxygen and kindling are to a fire. But they are fanning and fuelling a fire that was already burning. If we are seeking a solution, we should look not at our TV, computer and mobile device screens. For a good many of those on my social media timelines, apparently, the solution lies in their mirror.

Mark Anthony is editor of DemolitionNews.com

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Mark is a journalist, author, podcaster and daily live-streamer specialising in the field of demolition and construction.

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Mark Anthony

Mark Anthony

Mark is a journalist, author, podcaster and daily live-streamer specialising in the field of demolition and construction.

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