I was born and raised in the former German Democratic Republic, a few miles away from the border with Western Germany. It was this infamous border made of concrete blocks, barbed wire fences, and automatic self-shooting systems, ready to kill any Eastern German citizen who dared to seek a life in freedom. But luckily the Berlin Wall came down. Germany bloomed as one united nation. A new life full of opportunities started for millions of people, including my family and myself. Maybe it is this bipolar biography as a citizen of two different countries with two different ideologies that gives me perspective. Maybe it is my multifarious memory of a dictatorship that keeps me being alerted. But for sure, it is my love of a life in freedom that encourages me to ring the alarm bell today, when I tell you that social media is unhealthy, distorted, and even corrupted and it lures all of us into anti-social behavior.
No doubt, social media companies started as social networks with the good intentions to connect people. Thanks to social media I can stay in touch with many friends I made while traveling the world. And being a PR consultant, I would lie when I say, that I do not value access to trending news based on my interests. God bless the freedom of the press! But all this comes at a high price called personal data for personal advertisements. Today, social media is not about connecting people but about connecting our private data to create personal profiles for the purpose of advertisement. Any marketing professional will agree, that it is all about click rates and engagement. Because it is all about billions of dollars for huge social media corporations. It is not about being social, it is about money. And I am saying the price we pay is way too high.
Let us be honest with ourselves! Do we still truly connect with new people? No, it is usually a digital friend of a digital friend, just a click away. Someone recommended to us, usually by the algorithm. Someone easy, that does not bother, let alone with a different opinion than ours. And when did you recognize the last time that some of your social media friends mysteriously disappeared? Be it this friend with a contrary political opinion or this awkward but friendly neighbor. Did they block you or unfollowed you? No, most likely the algorithm and filter bubbles exclude their posts on a daily basis. What you see and read is not your freedom anymore but is decided for you. The algorithm silences the rest. Out of sight, nearly dead. How can this binary censorship make us feel truly connected with the remaining people on our friends list?
Let us be honest with ourselves! Today, ninety percent of the total US population uses social media actively. But despite the promises of social media, many of us feel lonely. Bonny Nagel, a psychologist at the University of Oregon, states: “They’re hanging out with friends, but no friends are there. It’s not the same social connectedness we need and not the kind that prevents one from feeling lonely.” In February 2021, a new report from Harvard’s Making Caring Common Project suggested that over 1 in 3 Americans faced “serious loneliness” during the Covid 19 pandemic, including over 60% of young adults. As Pew Research finds, eight-graders who spend over 10 hours on social media per week are 56% more likely to report being unhappy than those who spend less time on social media. But wasn’t the pandemic the prime season for any social media company? If all of us were connected online, what went wrong?
Let us be honest with ourselves! We come to realize that social media is not social at all but quite the opposite. Today, social media platforms are for us what the Colosseum was for the people of ancient Rome. We do not watch Christians being slaughtered. We are civilized. We watch the mishaps of others, even when they break their bones in not-so-funny videos. We laugh about people pranking each other and try to get likes with photos of our food or the newest buy. We applaud false preachers of individuality luring us into uniformity. We celebrate billionaires but bully the poor and downtrodden. Not so social, not really connected, right?
Let us be honest with ourselves!Do we really care anymore and read about what is happening in the world or even in our cities? Does social media really help to form our opinion in a way that enables us to make a mindful vote as citizens of a real democracy? Certainly, it is easier to watch an entertaining clip marked as breaking news than deep-diving into facts left and right. But we are betraying our society with these illusionary attempts of one-click-away truth-seeking. Even worse, by ignoring the serosity of the issue, we allow dictators of foreign countries to infiltrate our social media networks with bots, digital machines programmed to steer the debate and spread fake news. With open eyes, we continue to let them undermine the very foundations of everything we have and everything that is dear to us, our freedom and democracy and eventually our very own future.
The reality is, people love drama and drama sells better than facts. This is a truth even for traditional media, as the twelve news factors, first introduced by Johan Galtung and Mari Holmboe Ruge in 1965, confirm. Negativity, conflict, personalization, eliteness, or superlativeness are perfect ingredients for newsworthiness. And of course, they are also perfect ingredients for a skyrocketing TikTok video by a so-called influencer. Can you hear the mad screams and absurd laughter snarling its way from the ancient Colosseum into our time?
Let us be honest with ourselves! We must realize, the Achilles tendon of any Western Democracy is social media dressed in the gown of freedom of speech. But social media is dividing us. Social media is making us anti-social. It is time to wake up. It is time for a reality check.
So, what about you? How many hours did you look at a screen being online yesterday and how many hours in the face of a person in real life, your mother, your father, your spouse, your child, your real friends?
Let us be honest with ourselves! It is time to look up. Face to face.
Published by Sebastian Hesse