President’s Column: The Disillusionment with Social Media

June Wilson

June Wilson

June Wilson, PhD, RN
junewilsonphd@gmail.com

We have experienced quite a year as it relates to media and technology. When I first started as President, a leader from APA said, this is the year of Division 46 because of the information and rhetoric about “fake news.” How right she was.

Our media is in a constant state of flux. Despite one’s political beliefs, we live in a time where the President of the United States attempts to frame the daily narrative with early morning tweets, which are not necessarily regarded as factual (see Klely, 2018). Many on social media sites such as Twitter, then support or refute the narrative, oftentimes insulting others with differing viewpoints. Sadly, this can help fuel an incendiary environment that causes some to ridicule those who have endured sexual abuse, mail bombs to the opposition party, or to murder individuals who are engaged in religious acts.

The current assault on our media is very relevant to media psychology. The term “fake news” is often used when someone doesn’t agree with a story. An early use of the concept of “fake news” was by the Klu Klux Klan. According to Ford (2018), although the KKK terrorized the South on a frequent basis, many denied that they existed.

Journalists are the target of the vitriol and have been called the “enemy of the people.” One MSNBC reporter, Katy Tur, has publicly stated she received a letter from someone who wanted her raped and murdered. There is no doubt we have become a divided nation. This division was never more apparent than during the SCOTUS hearing for Justice Kavanagh.

Christine Blasey Ford, a professor of psychology, bravely came forward with disturbing news; she accused Judge Kavanagh of sexual assault that occurred when she was 15 years old, and he 17. She believed it was her civic duty to come forward and speak her truth to the Senate Judiciary Committee. Her story was compelling and was filled with raw emotion. Yet, like most sexual assault survivors she did not have hard evidence to corroborate her memories. For the last 36 years, she has remembered the assault, hiding in the bathroom, and the laughter of the two boys afterwards. When asked what her most painful memory was, she noted: “Indelible in the hippocampus is the laughter, the uproarious laughter between the two. They’re having fun at my expense” (as stated by Christine Blasey Ford before the Senate Judiciary Committee).

Millions of Americans watched and listened. Many survivors shared their own experiences of sexual assault via social media. According to Rape Abuse and Incest Network (RAINN) the national sexual assault hotline (Abrams, 2018), there was 147% increase in calls on the day of the testimony when compared with a normal work day, suggesting that many survivors were triggered by what they were watching and listening to via media.

What she doesn’t remember is exactly when it occurred, how she got to the house, and how she got home. As we know, during a traumatic event stress, hormones such as norepinephrine and cortisol help the brain focus on what is important at the moment. Peripheral details are not encoded, thus not stored by the hippocampus. Thus, trauma-related memories are acutely recalled, while peripheral details are not.

Unfortunately, some who do not understand how traumatic memories are encoded took to social media to question the truthfulness of Christine Ford’s testimony. Some hid behind the anonymity of the keyboard and concocted comments they would likely never say aloud. As a result of the hateful and abusive comments, her lawyer stated she was unable to return home, or stay in any location for longer than three days due in part to the unending threats of death or bodily harm via social media (Mojadad, 2018).

The Internet has become a venue in which to manipulate information according to our biases. Terrorists such as Cesar Sayoc used social media sites including Twitter and Facebook to find other like-minded people who shared in his vitriol of certain politicians, journalists, and entertainers who did not share his beliefs (Bruni, 2018). These resentments were echoed back and validated and culminated in explosive devices being mailed to over a dozen individuals.

It is likely that many did not know of the social media site Gap until it was revealed as a common place where white nationalists could post their beliefs. It was this format that allowed Robert Bowers to espouse his anti-Semitic vitriol before murdering 11 Jewish Americans at the New Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh. Like other terrorists, he was able to anonymously post his hatred and have it echoed back from like-minded individuals, which further reinforced his anti-Semitic beliefs.

Recently, technology leaders have revealed their beliefs about social media. Apple’s Tim Cook stated during M.I.T. graduation “The Internet has enabled so much and empowered so many, but it can also be a place where basic rules of decency are suspended and pettiness and negativity thrive” (APNews, 2017).

While the Internet can be a treasure trove of information allowing us to engage with others, partake in online learning, and learn about different cultures, it can also be used to propagate lies, and inflate misinformation, making it difficult to discern the truth. Social media provides a forum for conspiracy theorists to assert that some school shootings are hoaxes. Others use the format to organize hateful rallies and inflame their supporters. While we cannot control what is posted, we as media psychologists can help create policy surrounding media literacy programs and encourage civility in discourse.

Ways to remain civil include staying focused and only relying on facts, remaining kind, and refusing to feed the trolls. Consider your reputation before posting, and most importantly, practice device management. Know when to step away from your iPhone, tablet or computer, log off and engage with others face to face.

Justice Sandra Day O’Connor reminds us: “Unfortunately, civility is hard to codify or legislate, but you know it when you see it. It’s possible to disagree without being disagreeable” (Washington Post, 1993).

References

Abrams, A. (September 27, 2018). National sexual assault hotline spiked 147% during Christine Blasey Ford Hearing. Retrieved from: http://time.com/5409239/national-sexual-assault-hotline-spike-christine-blasey-ford-hearing/

APNews. (June 9, 2017). Apple to MIT grads: Tech without values is worthless. Retrieved from: https://www.apnews.com/466cbd4f2aaa4791bad6404dc92aab36

Bruni, F. (October 30, 2018). The Internet will be the death of us. The New York Times. Retrieved from: https://www.nytimes.com/2018/10/30/opinion/internet-violence-hate-prejudice.html

Ford, M. (October 30, 2018). America’s first ‘fake news’ crisis. The New Republic. Retrieved from: https://newrepublic.com/article/151937/americas-first-fake-news-crisis

Klely, E. (October 31, 2018). Fact check: Trump’s false, misleading tweets since he became president. USA Today. https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/politics/2018/10/31/fact-check-trumps-twitter-truth-false/1839332002/

Mojadad, I. (October 8, 2018). Unending death threats keep Christine Blasey Ford from returning home. San Francisco Weekly. Retrieved from: http://www.sfweekly.com/news/unending-death-threats-keep-christine-blasey-ford-from-returning-home/

Washington Post (April 4, 1993). Justice O’Connor criticizes lawyers for ‘Rambo’ tactics. Retrieved from: https://www.washingtonpost.com/archive/politics/1993/04/04/justice-oconnor-criticizes-lawyers-for-rambo-tactics/efa4a626-1111-4f70-a35f-3656fb35fa16/?utm_term=.5c0f8b2c8662

 

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