I was lying awake one night trying to figure out what ingredients have been added to the American cultural stew that have resulted in so much social and political dyspepsia. As late-night bedtime ruminations often go, my mind kept cycling back over and over again to social media.
Setting aside the nightmare for a moment, some personal background is warranted. As the president of a Latin-American Foundation that was based in New York City, one of our efforts involved creating community-based computer networks using graphical computer interfaces. This effort was more or less simultaneous with the introduction of Apple’s Macintosh computer which revolutionized computing with its graphical-user interface (GUI). Our goal was to connect environmental groups around the world using Microsoft computers with similar GUIs to the Macintosh. We introduced the concept at the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development in Rio de Janeiro in 1992.
Why this background on GUIs and online community groups? At the time we thought we had introduced great efficiencies in research and communications with respect to environmental work around the world. This was over 30 years ago. Further, we used this same technology to connect several of the UN consulates in New York with their home countries. Little did we know that these efforts were the beginnings of things we now call social media “bubbles” in which many users conglomerate around issues and ideologies to foment one another in cult-like places and spaces. Today, the most troubling of these digital citadels are inhabited by ideologues who propagate misinformation, conspiracy theories, and identity propaganda.
These “bubbles,” these ideological citadels, have driven the country into multi-polar factions that irritate the historical legacy of our democratic nation in which political action was exercised through civil debate and compromise. More dangerously, these social media troubles have led our country into a “post-truth” social landscape, which brings me to the notion of seriously supervising social media.
I have long held the belief that values, ethics and the fundamentals of morality are rooted in the institution of the family, and by extrapolation a family’s chosen faith. To some extent, what constitutes truth and what constitutes right and wrong are subjective in nature. Is it true that no-till farming is better than tillage farming? OK., we can have a civil and ethical debate about that. Is it true that that the Holocaust was a hoax? That is a debate that threatens the very moral and ethical underpinnings of our society.
What are the solutions to the threats that social media presents, whether manifested in too much screen time having unhealthy effects on our children, or the propagation of lies that distort truth and damage the psyches of our children and even many adults?
One of the most important barriers protecting our children from these kinds of deceitful and damaging effects is the protective shield that we as parents and grandparents can instate, and then use as a platform from which to teach about the dangers and limitations of social media.
Tech companies like Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, YouTube, WhatsApp, WeChat and TikTok have usurped much of this responsibility from us as parents, making algorithmic determinations as to what is acceptable and what is not acceptable. If experience has demonstrated anything, it’s that their algorithmic morality templates are dubious at best. Why defer to tech companies to manage the critical responsibilities of teaching our children what’s right and wrong, what constitutes distortions of truth, and why bullying is morally reprehensible?
There seemed to be no satisfying end to my sleepless ruminations about how to neutralize the damaging effects of social media. But if daytime shed any “light” on how we as a nation may realize some progress against the effects of social media, I came up with this awakened thought.
In our society, we tend to partake in novel things that we become infatuated with. Think of the partying era of the ’20s, the “Red Scares” of the ’50s, or the counterculture era of the hippies in the ’60s and ’70s. These things flamed up and then burned themselves out. Will this be true of a social media gone too far, having burned up our trust in its usefulness and veracity? Could it be that in the end we accept the notion that social media isn’t really a reliable purveyor of truth?
Could we learn to live with social media if we, as family caretakers of truth and morality, are able to successfully brand social media as a beltway of babble, untrustworthy of anything other than entertainment? Could we be successful in teaching our children and grandchildren to be skeptical of information on social media and more importantly teach them how to verify good information through multiple more credible sources?
Our social-media nightmare could end if it incinerates itself with excessive misinformation and disinformation. But my guess is that technology of this sort takes on an enduring life of its own. More likely, it lives on, but no longer is assumed to be a truthful medium of information. Either way, parents can’t be indifferent bystanders. Otherwise, we are our own worst enemy in the war against the evils of social media.
Bill Sims is a Hillsboro resident, retired president of the Denver Council on Foreign Relations, an author and runs a small farm in Berrysville with his wife. He is a former educator, executive and foundation president.
Bill Sims Contributing columnist