Words have weight. Ideas have gravity.
And when the two join with action, there can be consequences.
On Thursday, an angry man who appears to have reached his boiling point in the soup of social media made inflammatory statements online. He took a weapon and headed out to turn the passion in his mind into a purpose in the world.
And someone died.
In this case, it was Ricky Walter Shiffer, 42. After publicly posting for some time about his political beliefs, they bubbled over after search warrants were served on Donald Trump’s
Mar-a-Lago estate last week. That took him to the FBI field office in Cincinnati, starting a chain of events that ended in his death.
The situation mirrors the Tree of Life shooting in Squirrel Hill. Authorities say Robert Bowers had been posting on alt-right social media site Gab right up until the Saturday morning when he ended his screed with “I’m going in.”
The difference between the two incidents is the body count. Bowers survived the October 2018 bloodshed and awaits trial, charged with killing the 11 people who didn’t.
Social media is easily dismissed as frivolous and nonsensical. It narrates our lives and shares pictures of our breakfast. It is helpful as we keep in touch with family far away and links us back up with friends who we haven’t seen since high school graduation.
But it must be recognized as the potential danger it is.
Social media works with algorithms that identify things we want to say and want to hear. It listens to what we put out and feeds the same thing right back to us. Social media is the ultimate echo chamber — not just a bubble but an amplifier.
And the only way to survive it is to recognize what is happening.
It is critically important to use social media not just responsibly but with a healthy dose of questioning. Check the sources of the accounts that share information. Follow accounts that are the opposite of your positions to counter confirmation bias. Read the story, not just the headline.
But more than that, take time to put down your phone. To shut your browser. Pick up a paper or a magazine instead. Talk to real people about completely different things.
Find things that draw you to people instead of pitting you against them.
The best way to combat the dangerous side of social media is to walk away from it.