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Social Media Has Made Public Opinion A Meaner, Dumber Place

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As a 66-year-old superannuate, I'm often befuddled and bemused by the world of social media. I'm "on" Facebook but only to allow me access to various sites. Likewise, I have a Twitter account but primarily because it's useful to publicize any new published column of mine. Beyond that, I'm a veritable twittilliterate barely conversant with how Twitter works. I was recently harshly schooled in the ways of the Twittersphere when I naively jumped into a conversation about the causes of the ongoing Syrian crisis. A national political columnist was blaming Obama for the whole mess and I replied by stating that the true root cause was George W. Bush's invasion of Iraq. This led to a further exchange of views with the national political columnist engaging in ad hominem attacks and eventually ending his penultimate tweet by urging me to #gothef***away.
I suspect that the nastiness and bullying we see online today was there all along in years past.

Now I was not naïve enough to be completely surprised by this exchange (although the use of profanity by a national political columnist did catch me a bit off guard) but it got me thinking about how much political discourse has changed in one single generation. Twenty-five years ago, such an exchange was unlikely online and unheard of in print. Was that because people were more civilized back then or was it because of the more restricted means of communication available?

I submit that it's the latter. I suspect that the nastiness and bullying we see online today was there all along in years past but that it was restricted or at least dampened by those who governed the media.

Back in the previous century, people expressed their views primarily through such means as newspaper columns and letters to the editor. And those platforms were regulated by editors who ensured that commentators fleshed out their arguments, stayed on point and refrained from personal attacks. Unfiltered screeds and polemics were rare and usually self-published.

As time passed, people began using traditional media websites as a place to post their comments. The public conversation became a little rougher and nastier but it was still fairly civilized since most media outlets moderated their comments sections and kept the conversation within civilized bounds.

trump tweet

Now that has all changed. Many media sites no longer filter their comments sections and social media sites barely restrict the type and nature of comments posted. Where once we had guardians at the gate of opinion exchange, today it's anything goes in the new online Wild West.

And the worst offender in this new unfiltered opinion universe is Twitter. Everything about this site encourages the worst in human nature. It's barely governed thereby allowing users to engage in the nastiest personal invective. It encourages frequent, trivial tweets thereby rewarding those with the biggest egos. And, worst of all, it restricts tweets to 140 characters thereby punishing those with sophisticated arguments and dumbing down any ongoing conversation.

In the past, opinions were like noses -- everybody had one. Thanks to Twitter, today it is more accurate to say that opinions are as common as dirt; everybody has lots of them and they're not averse to sharing or imposing them over and over and over again.

There are those who praise the new Twitterverse that we occupy. They say that Twitter has created a powerful new way for everyone to engage in political dialogue. While that is undoubtedly true, I'm not so sure it's a good thing. One has only to look at the dysfunctional American political environment, the rise of Donald Trump and the decline of the European Union to see that Twitter has helped the inmates take over the asylum. The yahoos may yet rule the world.

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