What a difference a weekend’s non-stop news cycle makes.
I was going to write a post about the latest internet debate last week, concerning razor advertisements, implications of toxic masculinity, and the necessity of teaching young men virtue. (Of course, by the time I had started to put some thoughts together, several writers of higher calibre had already written excellent pieces in that vein, so I left off.)
Then I spent Friday and Saturday with some other men from church thinking through discipleship at home and in the church, and Sunday with my church family and friends. As I slowly got back online yesterday evening, another outrage had replaced the last outrage–this time, regarding the issue of racially-based disrespect and (later in the day) media narrative bias. Some people who were quick to repost the initial reporting began stumbling over themselves to walk back statements and reassess the latest available information, while others were doubling-down and disregarding any other data points or newly-available information.
One could point the finger of blame at social media for the flare-up of such stories, but then again, if not for alternative outlets beyond the “big three networks” and the cable news channels (ever the bulwarks of, um, “fair and balanced” reportage), we would not often get additional data points that challenge the way stories are framed.
Yes, there’s the ever-present danger of “fake news” and false leads (as was demonstrated when a young man was apparently misidentified as the infamous “smirker” and was hashtagged, stalked, harassed, and doxxed over the course of a few hours). On the other hand, if you limit yourself to what the “officially verified” and check-marked set report, you still may not get the full story. (After all, what’s the good in listening to only one verified source of “real” news when that source is Pravda, comrade?)
Suffice it to say, social media was abuzz with the reaction, the counter-reaction, the reactions to both, and the finger-wagging and tongue-clucking pointed in various and sundry directions. I got sucked in, reading about the drama, forming opinions on second- and third-hand accounts, until I realized I was doing the same thing everyone else was–feeding on the drama as an outside observer.
I’ve been thinking a lot about how I engage with social media and how that engagement affects me.
Some of that thinking has been helped by recent books (Jonathan Leeman’s How the Nations Rage, Andy Crouch’s The Tech-Wise Family, and Senator Ben Sasse’s excellent book Them). Some of it has grown from observations in myself and others, through the ebbs and flows of social media’s outrage spin cycle.
I’ve arrived at a few conclusions about how I need to change my social media use, which I will think through and share over a few posts in the coming weeks. Here is the first:
I am choosing to minimize the amount of rage-baiting in my feeds–both in terms of what I write and what (and whom) I read.
I doubt that term’s original, but I haven’t heard it used much, so I’ll claim it. “Rage-bait,” like “click-bait,” is an attractive invitation to engage–but specifically to engage in order to get angry.
Ben Sasse talks about “nut-picking” in his book Them–the practice of finding an extreme example of bad behavior or ignorance in another ideological tribe and holding it up as an example of that whole group. I think a lot of us are guilty of this, even without realizing it. We post and share stories that incense us, but if we were pressed, I doubt many of us would honestly say that “Wacko #5” is truly representative of the millions of people we would classify in the same ideological tribe.
But man, Wacko #5 gets us those sweet, sweet clicks, doesn’t he…
I want to resist the temptation to rage-bait. That doesn’t mean there aren’t things that deserve our outrage; on the contrary, there are realities that rightly require attention, comment, and even strong rebuke. It may not be healthy to fly to the opposite extreme and live in blissful ignorance of real-world concerns and issues, if we want to be good citizens and neighbors.
The problem is, to borrow a phrase from The Incredibles: If everything is outrageous, then nothing is outrageous.
Internet outrage becomes white noise. It’s barely a blip. One outrage sweeps in after another like waves lapping the shore, and we are all awash in it–partly because we choose to accept it and engage in it.
It doesn’t have to be this way. We can choose to distinguish which issues are worth discussing, and which ones we can just ignore. In other words, we don’t need to go off every time someone is wrong on the Internet. We can just shake our heads, close the browser window, and move on.
(And if there are specific people or sites in our feeds that are light on information or content and heavy on rage-bait, maybe the best response is to click that “unfollow” button. But that’s a discussion for another time.)
So here’s my challenge to you, reader: Take a step back and look at what you post and read on your various social media feeds. Consider the posts and tweets and shares that provoke you to anger the most. How much of it is actual issues-focused interaction…and how much of it is rage-bait?
Does the rage-bait actually make you a better citizen? A better neighbor? A better person? Or does it just make you angry?
And what might you do about that?