Social Media & Moral Judgment

Before on this blog, I have detailed ideas about moral thinking and I’ve written about social media but how does one affect the other. In many ways, of course. The worst thing about social media is that it amplifies everything wrong with the regular media. The stories for which “If it bleeds, it leads” applies don’t even need to be true, they just have to be juicy. Ghosting may seem like a crappy behavior but when serial killers and true crime anaectdotes become as common as schoolyard gossip, being a bad friend feels a lot less bad. Regina George may be mean but, I mean, she’s not Ted Bundy. When we are exposed to a world that is dominated by horror stories and tales of the worst of humanity, since we gage our own moral stature as it relates to our surroundings, it means that the smaller cruelties of life seem much more permissible.

A similiar argument was made by one of my bullies as a defense for his bullying me. He said kids are starving in Africa so I shouldn’t complain about some punks urinating on me. It makes sense but Joseph Kony could say “I may be a deranged African warlord but I’m not Hitler” and Hitler could say “Well, I may have a worse reputation but Stalin killed more people.” Then Stalin could say “Yeah, well, I’m not Mao.” This is what John Oliver calls “Whataboutism” and it doesn’t work. Stalin’s purges can’t justitfy The Holocaust. The existence of ISIS cannot justify cyberbullying. Yet, subconsciously, people do it all of the time and it is how people make moral judgments. Social media, like all media, natrually selects negative stories over positive ones so people don’t feel morally inferior to saints and instead just feel morally superior to sociopaths. Which means that instead of being good people, what they think is good is actually the bad side of normal.

Prior to people always being exposed to horror stories, people compared themselves and their behvaiors to each other and while crimes were known, they were being reported by people in suits and not adjacent to instagram photos of a coffee shop. Psychologically, there is a significant difference. It has gone from the newsstand to the schoolyard. The moral world people are getting from the metaphorical Nancy Grace of a Facebook feed is one where the moral topography of daily life is so mountianous that people ignore the hills. And, again, those mountains are not the moral greatness that we should compare ourselves to in order to seek to be better but are evil mountains that allow us to be content with our petty sins so that they fester and we cease to evolve.

It is also a world of constant causes. Working for a cause is great but that is not what is happening. If what were happening were people using Facebook as a Linkedin for nonprofits to give time to then that would be one thing. Instead, these causes are seeking validation of themselves and delegitimization of their opponents. These causes are usually not about helping people but about tallying support and also tallying opposition to their opponents which are almost useless. I’ve worked on countless political campaigns, all of which were harder and less vitriolic than the average online petition. Actually knocking on doors for a political candidate takes more time than a social media comment and does not need to be IN ALL CAPS or clickbaity to get attention because those compensate for actual sweat which real volunteering gets.

The online cause platforms are a race to be the most supportive without rising from the chair which means screaming and fighting. The less one does these flame wars suggests a less passionate support for a cause to one’s online peers. It also contributes to the earlier problem because to win support for a cause, the supporters will embellish and aggrandize their own side and lacerate their opponents until one side is all angels and the other all demons. Virtue is established by professed ideology more than behaved character and combined wih the earlier mentioned fact that the level of misconduct required for one to feel ashamed is much higher than before because the banal sins of daily life compete with the grand sins of history’s greatest criminals. This means that someone can be very hateful online and be satisified that they are good people because it was both for a cause they beleived in and was less hurtful to the other side than a terrorist attack.

Recently, I came across an Elitedaily article that supported burning the posessions of one’s ex in effigy. I’ve never had a romantic or sexual partner and prefer single life, in part, because I disdain the hatred associated with relationships. There are many reasons that burning someone in effigy is a horrible idea. Not the least of which that it has the psychological effect of reinforcing the cognitive biases that narrate the melodrama of a likely nuanced and multi-sided story. The sum of which are incredible volumes of self-pity where someone views their situation as comperable to a Syrian refugee and thus their opponent as a Hitler-like figure. If that level of disengenious narrative construction is not unhealthy then I don’t know what is. Yet, it comports with the distorted worldview of today of constant causes where flamboyant expressions of hatred are a sign of virtue and all cruelty that is less than physical assault is not wrong.

The end of this is the traditional virtues dissolve and in their stead are people whose ideas of right and wrong reduce to seeing the simple cruelties of daily life as par for the course and simple kindness as not a requirement and while still a saintly act, nothing normal people should be expected to do. What is a sign of virtue, too often, is the opposite of what that word should mean. I don’t have much faith in humanity and I never have but social media has done nothing but eroded what there is left to have faith in. It not only has a degrading effect on our minds and on our politics but also on our characters and, if you will, our souls.

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