Acton Institute Powerblog

How to drain the poison of outrage out of social media

It is a universally acknowledged truth that there are deep-seated problems with social media. Academics have written books against it; once venerable institutions are being torn asunder by it; individuals are being demonized on it; and all the while, we are spending more and more of our lives on it. Social media firms are keenly aware of the problem and are trying, in ham-fisted and halfhearted ways, to address it. Venkatesh Roa, founder and editor-in-chief of the blog ribbonfarm, gives a comprehensive analysis of just how the internet has been turned by social media into “The Internet of Beefs”:

If you participate in online public life, you cannot entirely avoid the Internet of Beefs. It is too big, too ubiquitous, and too widely distributed and connected across platforms. To continue operating in public spaces without being drawn into the conflict, you have to build an arsenal of passive-aggressive behaviors like subtweeting, ghosting, blocking, and muting — all while ignoring beef-only thinkers calling you out furiously as dishonorable and cowardly, and trying to bait you into active aggression.

This aggressive and uncharitable behavior is in many ways baked into the culture and the algorithms that govern social media. Conflict drives engagement. Charismatic internet celebrities (knights) mobilize and enlist largely anonymous armies (mooks) into “unflattened Hobbesian honor society conflict” where wars for attention rage:

The standard pattern of conflict on the IoB is depressingly predictable. A mook takes note of a casus belli in the news cycle (often created or co-opted by a knight, and referred to on the IoB as the outrage cycle), and heads over to their favorite multiplayer online battle arena (Twitter being the most important MOBA) to join known mook allies to fight stereotypically familiar but often unknown interchangeable mook foes. They come prepared either to melee within the core, or skirmish on the periphery, either rallying around the knights riding under known beef-only banners, or adventuring by themselves in unflagged, unheralded side battles.

Roa’s analysis of the deep-seated problems of social media is among the most penetrating and incisive on offer. It is all the more striking coming from someone who has immense faith in the promise of social media, which he defended last year on Russ Roberts’ always illuminating podcast EconTalk:

Roa sees online intellectual life as a form of supercomputer, an intellectual ecosystem that produces new knowledge and intellectual discourse. He encourages all of us to contribute to that intellectual ecosystem even when it can mean losing credit for some of our ideas and potentially some of our uniqueness.

While political and technological solutions to these problems ruining the promise of the internet remain largely untested and untried, the world’s religious traditions offer time-tested and enduring frameworks for preserving social order and protecting human dignity: “As in water face answereth to face, so the heart of man to man” (Proverbs 27:19). One such enduring religious framework is the Yamas (moral injunctions) commended by the Sage Patañjali in his Yoga Sūtras, a scholastic text of Yoga philosophy rooted in the Hindu tradition. These Yamas (moral injunctions) are, according to Patañjali, “great, mighty, universal vows, unconditioned by place, time and class” (II.31). They state that “[n]on-violence, truth, abstention from stealing, continence, and absence of greed for processions beyond one’s need are the five pillars of yama.” (II.29)

A social media presence governed by such norms is the beginning of our own taking of responsibility for this crisis. We must refuse to participate in the “Internet of Beefs” by refraining from harming others, being truthful in our pronouncements, and refraining from stealing the work, words, or reputations of others. We quiet intemperate passions by refusing to post or promote in word or image sexually explicit content or anything that elicits covetousness. When we fail to honor these commitments, which establish order and human dignity, we must repent.

In order to be always mindful, the Bible admonishes us to make such norms the very center of our lives. This meditation will then transform our actions and enrich our lives:

This law scroll must not leave your lips. You must memorize it day and night so you can carefully obey all that is written in it. Then you will prosper and be successful (Joshua 1:8).

The solutions to our present crisis are near to us, if only we would take and read.

(Photo credit: Public domain.)

Dan Hugger

Dan Hugger is Librarian and Research Associate at the Acton Institute.