Opinion

Making social media great again

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About a month ago, I installed an extension on my web browser that allowed me to curate out posts on Facebook that contained certain keywords. If a word on my list was contained in a post in any way, it would no longer be displayed.

What keywords did I choose? Any word or phrase that represented a political topic, or a divisive cultural conflict. Names of politicians. Words and phrases in the most vitriolic debates in politics. You name a hot button issue or term that has been central to dividing us into tribal mobs, and it probably ended up on my list.

I even added terms that appear in soulless clickbait articles — words like “destroys,” “obliterates,” “eviscerates,” “shreds,” “exposes,” and my least favorite word of all time, “viral.”

What I found, after the filter started to its work, was astounding.

Suddenly, my feed was full of thoughtful book recommendations, pictures of kids, funny stories about air travel, music videos, updates about what my favorite community organizations were doing, and a lot more talk of sports.

The best and most thoughtful, reasonable and intelligent people that I am connected with suddenly were all over my feed. The worst, most hyperbolic, most banal people were gone.

In short, the experience of using Facebook in this last month has been vastly improved. Rather than feeding constant feelings of animosity, discord, disappointment and even anger, I felt transported to a more innocent time in the history of the internet, when social media was a more positive, unifying experience that bound us together with human connections, humor, and the sharing of family, hobbies, and interests.

In other words, the internet community I loved and valued, rather than the one I had come to be cynically jaded about. It has been a mostly pleasant month.

Yesterday, however, I turned the filter off thinking it would be an interesting experiment to see what would happen.

You might think that suddenly, an onslaught of pent up bile might have returned to my feed. You would be wrong.

My feed, it turns out, doesn’t look all that different than it looked before I turned the extension off.
In the last month, Facebook has been essentially relearning what I like and what I don’t. Because I had removed all of this content from my feed, I was never given the opportunity to engage with it in any way.

The Facebook algorithm recorded this behavior, and built what it had learned into the content it now presents me. Thus, it simply kept feeding me the same things I had been consuming in recent weeks.

So why am I telling you this?

First, because it is fashionable to blame Facebook for the poisonous discourse we are all engaging in today. But the reality is that what we see is us. If our content is so toxic — and it is — it is because we made it toxic.

We engage with the nonsense, the bitterness, the vapidity, the hatred, the divisiveness, which is why we are fed a steady diet of it.

We have to start being far more aware of our basic human failings, and controlling them. One of those failings is our responsiveness to anger and fear, which allows us to be easily manipulated and motivated into action.

It is our individual responsibility to exert control over these base, animal instincts of ours, and fight against them. The power is in our own hands.

Another lesson learned from this experiment is that so much of the animosity we experience today is uncalled for. When you strip out all the garbage that we artificially create to pit us against each other, we really do share a lot in common. The traps we fall into in social media have a tendency to create cartoon characters out of real people, hiding the fact that most of us are good and decent people who aren’t all that different.

Which brings me to my ultimate point. I know that I am an intensely political person. It is why I do what I do for a living.

Anyone who is as passionate about politics and public policy like I am — and there are millions of us — needs to ensure that that interest does not end up being weaponized against us, of our own accord.

Politics may be born of noble sentiment, but it also universally corrupts everything it touches. We must be mindful of this, and avoid the wildfire of malice it has created in this country.

Matthew Gagnon of Yarmouth is the chief executive officer of the Maine Heritage Policy Center, a free market policy think tank based in Portland. A Hampden native, he previously served as a senior strategist for the Republican Governors Association in Washington, D.C.

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