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Social media should bring us together, not tear us apart

Social media anger

(Editor’s note: A different version of this article on social media was originally published on Reposted with permission.)

Social media has become toxic. We are all experiencing this with the proliferation of fake news peddlers, trolls, and misogynists on social networks.

These days, it almost seems as if only two types of social media users exist. Those who go out of their way to offend, and those who go out of their way to be offended.

Responsible use of social media

Social Media Summit speaker Maria Ressa with the author
Social Media Summit speaker Maria Ressa with the author

And yet, social media remains a popular and useful platform. It allows us to connect with family and friends, wherever they may be around the world. Throughout the years, I have built meaningful relationships with many people online. In fact, I have yet to meet some of these individuals in real life. Social media is a powerful tool for sharing ideas, promoting causes, and mobilizing people.

The situation these days reminds me of a talk I gave on Dec. 10, 2011 in Ateneo at the first Social Media Summit organized by the Ateneo Association of Communication Majors. I was then the Southeast Asia Head of Social and Community of Yahoo! Southeast Asia, and my fellow speakers included Maria Ressa and Jim Paredes.

In my presentation, I stressed the need for the responsible use of social media. I told the students that readers are no longer passive consumers of news. Readers decide what is news to them. The balance of power has shifted to individuals. With all the digital tools readily available to us, anyone can be a publisher and a broadcaster. You don’t need to own a printing press and a TV station. You just need Facebook and YouTube.

With great power

Every day, whether we realize it or not, we are content creators. We write our own stories, post comments, curate news from different online sources, and distribute content by liking and sharing. Moreover, our potential audience is not just the people we know, but anyone around the world.

This kind of power once belonged to an elite few, and yet many of us take it for granted. Yet as Uncle Ben taught us, with great power comes great responsibility.

“Being virtual is no excuse for being vicious,” I emphasized in my talk.

Oh, sweet summer child!

Spread joy instead of outrage

Back in 2011, I had no idea of course how much worse the social media environment would become. Nowadays, it seems that being vicious is the new normal, and Facebook is optimizing for outrage.

No wonder it’s a toxic environment. The newsfeed highlights articles or social media posts that provoke outrage. And so they get the most shares and reactions. They will then appear more often in the newsfeeds, provoking even more outrage, resulting in a vicious cycle.

It’s why you hear the advice: “Don’t feed the trolls.”

If you share posts you disagree with and comment on them, the algorithm rewards these posts for engagement. Meaning paid trolls earn more money the more you argue with them.

Of course, while personal change is important, the other side of the coin is the responsibility of media. Media organizations still wield a lot of influence. They decide which stories will become news–the news that people will then share on social media. As media practitioners, we should publish the truth and not contribute to the spread of toxicity online.

Stop glamorizing evil

The author with then Manila Archbishop Luis Antonio Cardinal Tagle
The author with then Manila Archbishop Luis Antonio Cardinal Tagle

Last October, my godmother Myra Salvosa invited me to attend the “Media Evangelization: Likes, Comments, Shares” forum in Ateneo. Then Manila Archbishop Luis Antonio Cardinal Tagle was the main speaker.

In his talk, Cardinal Tagle stressed that media practitioners should avoid sensationalizing the news and warned against “glamorizing evil.”

“Heaven and Hell are not on equal footing. Good and evil are not on equal footing,” he said.

Unfortunately, the way media sometimes covers the news can normalize vicious behavior. This can desensitize people to violence, corruption, and the other evils of society.

Media still has the responsibility to decide what is newsworthy. It should not just quote whatever lies or outrageous statements politicians make. Or devote so much airtime to showbiz scandals or celebrity word wars. Media must raise the level of discourse. It should not pander to the lowest common denominator and the baser instincts of human beings.

Ironically, in their misguided attempt to stay relevant by wallowing in mud, media might be further alienating the youth.

The youth want to change the world

With Fr. Jboy Gonzales, SJ and the author's godmother Myra Salvosa
With Fr. Jboy Gonzales, SJ and the author’s godmother Myra Salvosa

As another speaker at the forum, Fr. Jboy Gonzales, SJ, the host of ABS-CBN’s “Kape’t Pandasal”, stressed, the youth are far from apathetic. They are hungry for meaningful conversations and relationships. That is why young people are even leaving Facebook, because toxicity is adding to the stress they are already experiencing.

Fr. Jboy cited the results of McCann Truth Central’s Truth About Youth 2018 survey. He said millennials are still asking the same questions even in the digital age. These focus on three things: identity, community, and purpose.

“They want to change the world. They want to change people’s lives. But on their own terms, in their own way,” he said.

I approached Fr. Jboy after his talk. I told him that the good news of spirituality and selflessness can be a perfect fit for social media. After all, apart from outrage, it is joyful news that gets the most shares and engagement on Facebook. We congratulate our family and friends. Or like and share photos of joyful events and milestones. Or share news about acts of kindness and heroism.

This does not mean that we should not speak out against injustices or turn a blind eye to evil. But instead of just complaining on social media and wallowing in negativity, we should do something about it.

Social media can be a powerful tool for good. But we have to translate our virtual likes and shares into real-world actions. Find your purpose, and cooperate with others who believe in the same advocacy.

Together, we can change ourselves and change the world.


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