In 2016, the day after the U.S. presidential election, I wrote an essay criticizing social media echo chambers. I stated that anyone who was flabbergasted by Trump’s victory was part of the problem. I urged people to break out of their echo chambers, seek alternative perspectives, and hold constructive dialogues with their fellow community members. We’re all in this together, I thought. We can fix this.
Boy, was I naive.
To do my part, I joined a number of Facebook groups for area residents. I subscribed to new subreddits. After having a baby in 2019, I also joined a moms’ group on Facebook whose About page mentioned, “Various vaccine schedules [including no vax] will be popular here.” I tried really, really hard to talk to people. I mulled over their messages, asked honest questions, suppressed my natural sarcastic tendencies (at least until it became clear that nothing productive could come out of a conversation), and sought a modicum of mutual understanding. I worded every sentence carefully and made sure to include courteous, rapport-building phrases like, “Perhaps I am misreading, but…” and “I do agree with you that…”.
It was a waste of time and energy about 80% of the time. These people had made up their minds long before logging into Facebook, and no number of thoughtful questions or amount of personal sharing from an online stranger was going to change them. It made no difference that this online stranger was supposed to be a friendly neighbor, someone they might encounter at the local park or grocery store. Only a handful were civil. Most defaulted to calling me a “triggered snowflake,” even when I hadn’t stated any liberal points. Only a few were capable of logical reasoning—and not all of them overlapped with the civil ones. One or two must have been Russian trolls, with a handful of friends and an image of the American flag as their profile picture.
While I learned a lot about different people’s worldviews and motivations (which I am counting as 15% of the time not wasted), I doubt they absorbed much of mine. They simply did not care. They were only there to mouth off about their opinions and fears, not to learn anything that could risk changing them. The remaining 5%, I might have persuaded someone to acknowledge or reflect on a concept. Never got definitive proof, though. For all I know, they reverted straight to their old mindset as soon as I locked my phone and returned to the real world. I didn’t even make any new friends along the way, which might have been a decent consolation prize.
The crux of the issue is that we, as a society, no longer strive to establish common ground with each other. The COVID-19 quarantine may be partially responsible for aggravating our moral decay, as we have lost significant face-to-face contact and grown increasingly indifferent to words on screens. However, this was already a problem in 2016 when I wrote that essay. It was probably even happening years before that, as the advent of social media drew more people online. We are letting the media, mainstream or otherwise, manipulate us into senseless infighting and believing that the “other” is a crude, absurd caricature. We are too caught up in the fog of buzzwords and propaganda to see real people as they are. When we see a particular something in a profile picture or comment, we instantly throw that name into a bucket with some stereotypes and start going “lalala” with fingers in our ears.
This isn’t just about right-wingers. The left is guilty of this, too.
So many topics should not be political, yet people are determined to politicize them. We cannot even wear face masks without being associated with socialism and “men in women’s bathrooms.” Basic science and facts are no longer trusted. People formulate deep-seated opinions without any academic knowledge or extensive personal experience. They hate people for doing something or coming from somewhere, without reflecting on possible motivations or—I don’t know—asking them about it. Blatant hypocrisy and discrepancies in belief systems are ignored. Context, nuance, and empathy have all gone down the drain. Nobody can answer a basic fucking question anymore without “but what about…”s, straw man fallacies, beating around the bush, and name-calling befitting of an elementary schooler.
Take “Black lives matter,” for example. Do you agree that they do?
No, don’t start about the protests and the looting. I’m not talking about the movement, the organization, or whatever “independent news” article you read the other day. Don’t tell me about your family member who is an upstanding police officer or how much Black people attack their own. We can work our way to that, eventually. If you’re willing to keep hashing this out with me. First, let’s take about twenty steps back and just consider those three simple words.
Do you agree that Black people have worth?
Are they as equally entitled as white people to Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness?
Unless you are a sociopath or happily admit to being an asshole, it shouldn’t be that hard to say it out loud with me. Black lives matter.
That’s where we need to start, from square one. It seems so simple to me. Yet I haven’t been able to get any #MAGA2020 proponents in my various Facebook groups just to say those three words by themselves. At best, I have seen a few people insist, “Black and blue lives matter.” It is pathetic, worrying, frustrating, infuriating, and depressing. They claim to want this country to come together, but when I throw the ball in their court, they ignore it or toss it away. The same goes for just about everything else: the pandemic, reproductive rights, healthcare, LGBTQ rights, education, climate change, and so on. It should be easy to agree on some core tenet—but for some utterly baffling reason, we can’t. All these keyboard warriors lack logical reasoning, empathy, or both.
Last weekend, I was teased by a glimmer of hope when someone named Michael posted in our township’s group about the need for people to work together through disagreements. Someone else who gets it! I thought. Actually, his original post was a quote from an alleged military veteran threatening that if “you people” didn’t “work it out,” they would “make your lives hell because war is hell.” I asked for clarification on the purpose of posting such a quote. Michael politely claimed it was a rallying cry for compassion and solidarity. Hm? Not the most logical interpretation, but I wanted to support it—so I replied, “Got it, thanks and I agree.” He then responded with, “Talk about poor reading comprehension.” Are you serious? Why would you turn around and make a remark like that, when I had given you the benefit of the doubt and left your stupid trigger-happy quote alone? When I told him that was rude and unnecessary, he dug his heels in like a petulant child and called me a snowflake. Maybe Michael is just a cretin, but sadly enough, he is far from an anomaly. There are many like him, who love being illogical and crass. They even have allies who defend their assholery. And all of them will mock you for being a “snowflake” when you call them out.
One election cycle later, I believe the echo chambers have gotten worse, not better. Not only are people feeding into biased content with more voracity and determination than ever, but they also double down on it when anyone else dares to suggest something non-conforming. I saw a post just yesterday by someone who claimed, “Democrats want to abolish the local police.” Three people commented that they were Democrats who did not, in fact, want to abolish the local police. Two others commented later along the lines of, “Yes, it’s unbelievable. What is wrong with them?” I was dumbfounded. Here were three people speaking up to correct a misconception, yet their messages were displayed to blind eyes. Lord help us.
What was a hairline crack in the foundation of our society has become a yawning crevice.
If things continue like this, Trump will win again in 2020—though that is not even my biggest concern. If so many individuals truly feel Trump is their champion, and not enough others care enough to de-throne him, then I will accept that he is the president our nation deserves. Instead, I am worried about how American society will continue to devolve beyond the next presidential term. I am also worried about things like deepfakes. We are already rejecting science and facts with little to no justification. We are already falling for obvious and easily discredited propaganda, like the birther movement and the video about Planned Parenthood’s operations. How stable of a civilization can we expect to have when there is—perhaps very soon—substantial justification for rejecting all information?
I found out from my mother one day about anti-Black discourse taking place among a network of Chinese-American immigrants on WeChat. I told her this was wrong. I explained systemic oppression to her and why we, as fellow non-whites, need to care. Even though we don’t have the closest relationship and we never talk about this stuff, she was receptive. She told me later that she looked further into one of the media personalities discussed in the group and realized how foolish that person was. So I would be happy to keep having these conversations with people I know and respect. With all these other randoms, though, I am done. At last, I am accepting that this is something I cannot fix, that this is a heap of non-biodegradable garbage in which I cannot even hope to make an appreciable dent.
Our only hope is that people like Michael have family and friends who are more reasonable, with whom they will engage more respectfully. If you have zealously antagonistic relatives, you need to do your part in changing them. We all know at least one person who is in a group chat where problematic videos and memes circulate. There may be that one relative who is cooped up all alone in their house and falling into a rabbit hole of toxic YouTube videos for hours every day, the algorithm relentlessly digging them deeper and deeper. If you want to make a difference, you need to sort out your own racist grandparents, your misogynistic Uncle Mike, your crazy Aunt Karen, and that one weird kid from high school who never left your hometown. I can’t reach your people. I have tried so much that my head is weary and my heart is heavy. Those people won’t listen to an online stranger like me. Someone has to get through to them, though. Human beings need to build more empathy toward each other if we wish to survive in the long run. We are fast approaching a point of no return. When deepfakes and other conspiracies inevitably threaten to tear apart our communities and livelihoods, we will need to care enough about each other to investigate matters and determine the truth. Otherwise, we will be doomed to paranoia, chaos, and obsoletion.