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Is Tom Flanagan Just Another Victim of Social Media's Dark Side?

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Marshall McLuhan, forever associated with the expression, "The medium is the message," wrote in 1967 that we live in a "complex system of information, physically, physiologically, nervously, humanly." He wrote at that time that there had never been so much information. He referred to this increase in information as "information fallout." He described masses of information that one could barely absorb. He was concerned that we were losing a sense of unity with all these bits of information and this could lead to something worse than chaos.

What would he say today? Think about that. He had already written about the dangers of information overload before iPads and tablets, iPods, cell phones that are really computers, real-time video and audio postings, cars with computer touch screens that also talk, televisions with hundreds of stations competing for our attention.

He also wrote that as worrisome as the amount of information we were expected to synthesize, was the technology that dispersed it. Technology affects the way we look at the world. There are social implications as a result of the medium that we use. I think he was saying that we are so busy focusing on the content that we don't realize that the medium (technology) itself leads to social change, not always for the betterment of society.

Today, we have masses of information that are sent via instant messaging, tweeting, tumblr, YouTube. Speed is a priority, brevity is important. There are social implications that come with this technology. Among other things, we are losing accuracy and time for critical thinking. Tom Flanagan is a recent recipient of information fallout. He was asked about the Indian Act which was synthesized with a question about child pornography and something Mr. Flanagan might have said elsewhere. The comments, posted on YouTube, travelled at the speed of light. How was he to engage in reasoned discourse when the message had so quickly been massaged by others beyond the original thought or intent? Look how quickly he was judged and "dropped" by friends and peers. Is this our future: Fear of attacks on social media stifling different voices and difficult but necessary problem-solving?

McLuhan also taught that technology brings "extensions and amputations"; the good and the bad. McLuhan's example had been the telephone. Yes, it extends the voice, but also amputates the art of penmanship gained through regular correspondence. I would suggest that it also was the beginning of an amputation of person to person interaction which is necessary for the brain to pick up the minutiae of signals that enable us to "read" others. Today's technology fractures interpersonal relationships.

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We do our society a disservice if we only embrace the extensions and refuse to look at the amputations.

For all the good social media was meant to achieve by extension, opening the discourse to many who would never have been heard, it released unintended consequences by encouraging anonymity and grandiose infantile delusions of entitlement to say anything. Anonymity makes it possible for people to express feeling-based opinion that is often 100 per cent fact-free and rarely resembles anything close to truth. There is no accountability when one can espouse beliefs behind screen names.

Civility is a firewall meant to keep us from reverting to our petty, selfish, inner, ugly natural selves; from expressing dangerous hateful dogma. In the 1920s Freud wrote that without some form of controls, religious or otherwise, mayhem would rule as we fall to the lowest common denominator. Most recent studies from Yale University point to an innate lack of compassion from birth towards those who are different. Anything that takes the restraints away from civilization is welcomed by those who attack others whom they view as different or most often weak; easy targets. Orwell's Animal Farm online. The ordeal of civility is an ordeal for a reason.

Anonymous comments, "the new norm," on social media, have serious social implications. They can inflame a situation, feeding the baser emotions of readers and listeners. Anonymity makes it possible to taunt others, to agitate, to provoke but not educate, making room for a meanness that has insinuated itself into everyday communication; a meanness that promotes anger, the type of anger that in its vehemence can lead us away from compassion and empathy. It is acceptable, today, to speak rudely, disrespectfully, thoughtlessly throughout the public square and irreparably damage others.

Our young people, encouraged to bare all, are incorporating disrespectful behaviours into their daily interactions, so much so that Professor Jill Jacobson at Queen's University felt compelled last year to introduce rules of civility into her classroom "Discriminatory, rude, threatening, harassing, disruptive, distracting and inappropriate behaviour and language will not be tolerated." It is a sad comment on our students, today, that one would need a clause to ensure respect for our teachers. What was more surprising was the response that somehow demanding respectful speech would impinge upon freedom of speech as if the right to speak included the right to discard all things civil.

There is no doubt that social media is contributing to great positive changes in our world. But we must not forget or ignore its dark side. Our children, young and older, have become so comfortable expressing their feelings on their computers, phones, and iPads, they are unwittingly disseminating thoughts and pictures one would never share in public while at the same time they are opening their private space to new-age bullies and sexual predators.

Remember the nursery rhyme: Sticks and stones can break my bones but names will never hurt me? Not true. Words abused are weapons of destruction. And today, these words remain in the public discourse for perpetuity. There are no MRI's to detect broken souls; the result of language abused.

In the long history of human development, civility is nascent. The past century has shown us the ease with which the foundation of civility is breached; it is still a tenuous veneer. Social media, by encouraging anonymous communication can, bit by bit, fracture civility, the rock upon which a healthy society stands. A society without civil constraints falls into decay. The anonymous world of social media is unintentionally teaching us, consciously and unconsciously, to be unfeeling, uncaring, and insensitive. We do that at the expense of the health of our children and the health of our community.

Continuous impersonal communication prevents the development of civilized, emotionally well-developed, compassionate citizens capable of rational, respectful dialogue. We can't put the genie back in the bottle. But we must find ways to teach civility, again, or we all lose.