I’m tired of hearing of people wholesale condemn technology for ruining people’s minds. Maybe you’ve heard such a sentiment from a parent. Maybe it’s coming from a friend who has decided not to use Facebook (and is perhaps a little self-righteous about it). Every student has heard it from a teacher or professor, especially when the issue is grammar. You could reply with “You’re just out of touch!” or “Get with the program!” After all, our ability to thrive is rather closely tied to our online presence. We need email for work; we network using professional sites like LinkedIn; we run businesses through websites and depend on social media to reach customers. Your online persona on Instagram or Youtube could make you millions.
I want to defend social media, but not in the way you may be expecting. I’m not going to tell anyone that it’s a good idea to scroll through social platforms for most of the day (though I, too, have been guilty of this). Social media is, indeed, rife with brain-rotting, empty BS. But no more so than any other kind of media.
For every click-bait article and opinionated blog, there’s a biased newspaper, a scholarly article whose research doesn’t hold up, or a lifestyle book that poses as philosophy but is really the entryway into a larger for-profit brand. Yes, even books can lead you astray.
Imagine that you’ve never read a book in your life. Not even a picture book as a child. One day someone hands you a book, which you’ve never seen or heard of before, and tells you to read. You have no expectations for what you will read in this book. No idea if what you’re reading is fiction or nonfiction. You can’t tell if it’s a good book or a bad book. You have no context for understanding what a book is supposed to do. Until you read another book, this book is the sole foundation, the only influence on your comprehension of books. You expect that all books are very much like this one.
It’s the same experience for someone who sees Instagram for the first time if they have never used any other social media platform. That person now thinks that social media, all of social media, is used to share pictures with people who are following you, and that person’s idea of “following” may be much more literal and unsettling than intended. It’s not a totally inaccurate assumption, but it’s not the whole picture. That person isn’t going to see that until they investigate other sites and platforms.
The fewer ways we have to communicate, the smaller our world is. A few years ago, in a particularly cynical mood, I asked my mother if the world was always such a chaotic mess, or if it’s just easier to hear about the chaos. I wondered if Earth really seemed like a safer, more peaceful place when she thought about her childhood. She remembered how, during the Vietnam War, news stations were able to report the actual events of the conflict from across continents. For the first time, civilians were seeing wartime devastation in their living rooms, and this changed many people’s minds about whether or not US involvement in Vietnam was justified. In contrast, during World War II, most war-related media were edited documentaries and propaganda; it was optimistic and patriotic in tone. Live TV had been invented by then, but the scope was limited; the first live national broadcast occurred in 1951, when Harry Truman delivered his speech at the Japanese Peace Treaty Conference in San Francisco. The first transatlantic broadcast didn’t happen until 1962.
I bring up this history to point out how quickly the ability to communicate has developed over the past century, and also to show how easily communication happens. Now, those of us who actively use the internet and social media hear about major events in seconds. It used to be that the news anchor was the most trusted person you knew, which is why it was such a scandal when it was revealed that Brian Williams of NBC fabricated a story about being attacked while in a military helicopter in Iraq. We are flooded by media–good news and bad news. The high-quality reporting and the low. The literature we write dissertations about and the literature we take to the beach. The fiction and the non-fiction. The real and the fake.
How we perceive media is inherently political. There are people and entities who have a vested interest in making us accept one thing as true and another as false. This applies as much to your Facebook feed as to the anonymous op-ed about the Trump administration that was published in the New York Times. This is why I believe social media and the Internet must be weighed the same as the print, audio, and visual media we have accepted as reliable–even when it wasn’t–for decades. If we accept that social media is worthless, or a waste of time, we can’t be critical consumers and users of it. And if we can’t do that, we can’t be critical of how it affects our thinking.
Here’s an example. Once, a Facebook friend of mine shared an image of two hard-boiled eggs. One had a bright yellow yolk and was captioned with “organic cage-free egg”. The other egg had a pale, dry, yellow yolk with gray edges, and was captioned with “GMO egg”. The implied argument was that organic agriculture yielded fresher, more nutritious food, and that non-organic products were lesser in quality, filled with hormones, chemicals, and “toxins”. It’s a pretty stark image with a clear argument, but the thing is I’ve boiled a few eggs in my life and I know that when you overcook an egg, it becomes pale, dry and gray. Now, I have some valid concerns about genetic modification in agriculture–the reduced genetic diversity that makes crops more susceptible to blight, the patenting and monopolization of seed that financially devastates farmers and their communities–but despite my own political feelings I could confidently conclude the claim was unfounded.
But I’ve also seen plenty of trustworthy things on social media, like live video of a protest on someone’s Twitter feed, or articles shared from news sources not typically disseminated in the US. The problem is that someone who immediately and uncritically dismisses social media as trivial or untrustworthy will label anything they see on it as false (okay, maybe they wouldn’t shout “fake news!” over a photo of my cousin on his first day of school, but that’s pretty harmless). But have you ever brought up evidence in an argument only to hear, “Oh, where’d you see that? The internet? You can’t trust what you see on the internet.”
Only, sometimes you can. You know that a celebrity really said something in a Tweet because you see the blue verification check next to their name on the profile. You surmise that a journalist is reliable because they’ve included their bio and credentials at the end of the article. You see that an opinionated blog post has not been written in a vacuum because it contains links to other pieces of writing that have informed the blogger’s opinion. Now, should everyone with a verified account be taken seriously? No, as the checkmark only verifies the author of the Tweet, not their credentials. Could that journalist be lying about where they got their degree? Maybe. You could try and research them to make sure. Do those links in the blog post lead to impartial sources, or is the blogger forming opinions in an echo chamber? You’ll have to follow the links to find out. But each of these characteristics tells you something about the reliability of the information you’re consuming. These are signals that you recognize and use to understand context, and you recognize them because of your familiarity with online media.
We have this skill of analysis, but we need to apply it consciously to everything we consume to avoid misconceptions upon which entire ideologies can be based, and judge for ourselves the veracity of information. This article from NPR cites a study from Stanford that found that middle school, high school, and college students are, on average, unable to identify when a claim is unfounded. We need to be discerning of everything from our textbooks to memes, or we’ll be swept into other people’s rivers of thought.
I’d like you to try this out on me. Who am I to tell you what to think about your Facebook feed? I could tell you about my qualifications and my professional background, which you should find in my bio. But this is a blog, where at the end of the day I’m writing about my personal view. Sure, I’ve cited an article to back up my point, but can you take me at my word that I’m credible? How would you feel about citing a blog post in an academic paper? How would you contextualize it for your own reader? Could you guess at my political beliefs? At what point during your read did you decide whether or not you agreed with me?
I only have as much influence as you give me. And if this is the first blog post you’ve ever read, that influence might be very strong, for better or worse. So for the sake of improving our information literacy, I offer a challenge: read one completely new genre across the analog-digital divide, and then write in that genre yourself. Internet-shunners, make a Twitter account, even just for a week. Social media addicts, grab a periodical from the library. Make a note of how the source asks you to believe it. What did you do to confirm its veracity? How do you background check a scholarly journal versus an instagram account? How can you tell if you’re the intended audience for a text, or if you aren’t?
Let’s all commit to engage with new media genres, and reexamine the familiar texts you already consume. Leave a comment below and tell us about any interesting experiences you’ve had!