Have you ever read something online, be it a Facebook post or a blog post, that made you feel extremely irritated and annoyed?
Yesterday, I came across a somewhat silly but controversial topic on an online forum. Some of the comments, extreme in their outlook, elicited strong negative emotions in me. I felt personally attacked and insulted. I felt outraged.
After some internal debate and careful consideration, I came to the conclusion that most of these opinions were over-exaggerated, logically flawed and inconsistent, and only existed because of the safety and anonymity online platforms provided. I decided they weren’t worth my attention, nor a prolonged reaction out of me.
Experience has shown me that extreme world views often are the loudest online.
In an earlier posting, I wrote about things I noticed since quitting social media two years ago. One thing I forgot to mention is, extreme world views mostly only exist online.
In today’s attention economy, outrage, extremism, and sensational news generates the most amount of clicks. On a basic primal instinct, it makes sense that we are highly responsive to emotions that alert us to danger. Fear is a good motivator to outrun predator. Social media amplifies these elements of human nature to keep us engaged.
As a New York Times article, How Everyday Social Media Users Become Real-World Extremists, eloquently put it:
Everyday users might not intend to participate in online outrage, much less lead it. But the incentive structures and social cues of algorithm-driven social media sites like Facebook can train them over time — perhaps without their awareness — to pump up the anger and fear. Eventually, feeding into one another, users arrive at hate speech on their own. Extremism, in other words, can emerge organically.
Let’s take politics, and the 2016 U.S. election, for example.
During and after the 2016 U.S. election, I was a heavy Twitter user. It is an understatement to say that everyone, including myself, had a strong opinion about the election, specifically and especially regarding Donald Trump. I read tweets about the guy every single day for well over a year.
Someone, somewhere, somehow always had something to say about Trump and the election.
I did, too.
It was the thing to do.
Never mind that I’m a Canadian, with very limited knowledge of U.S. politics, who never once watched a speech by Trump to have a meaningful opinion on the POTUS.
Nonetheless, after a while, I began to form the belief that everyone was either passionately against Trump or a nazi white supremacist who supported him. I believed that there could only be two sides when it came to Trump: you either hated the guy or wore MAGA hats and hated minorities.
When I deleted Twitter, and the FOMO eventually wore off, I was pleased to find extreme political views weren’t spewed off every moment of every day in the real world.
In fact, it was rare to hear about Trump, from either side of the debate. The contrast between Twitter and the real world was stark and refreshing.
I began to go days, and I mean days, without hearing about Trump, to the point where I often forgot his existence.
It was a relief!
From my experience, people tend to be less extreme with their world views in real life, and more willing to consider differing views and ideas.
This could be the result of people being less transparent in person. It could also be that, despite what online platforms might make us think, most of us are busy with every day living to dedicate a huge amount of time and energy to nurture extreme political views.
I like to believe that, for most of us, when the alarm goes off at six o’clock in the morning and we have to get ready for work, the first thing we think about isn’t, ‘dang, I hate white people’ or ‘I hate immigrants.’ There might be some individuals like that and I say, please seek immediate help.
Even during my Twitter-fuelled social justice warrior days, most of my thoughts were preoccupied with relationship issues and affording another night out getting drunk the coming weekend.
Life tends to get in the way.
It is also worth mentioning that concerns over dissent going underground and impacting society is a very important discussion that requires careful analysis.
In other words, I’m not saying ignoring extreme opinions online is the answer to the issue. It is a viable alternative for a purely selfish reason though— sustaining my sanity.
Below are some ideas to consider for sustaining one’s sanity while engaging with extreme views online.
→ Minimize engagement with extreme views online, and avoid having extreme views on things you are not fully knowledgeable about.
→ Remind yourself, it is completely okay to not have an opinion on any given topic, issue, or thing. It’s okay to say, ‘I’m not sure about that,’ ‘I haven’t thought about that,’ or any variation of that.
→ Remember: opinions are like a**holes, don’t be one. If you won’t say it in real life to a real person, don’t say it online.
And, what should you think about Donald Trump? It doesn’t matter.
What matters is that we remain committed to logic, reason, and critical thinking, and open to opposing views and dialogues.
Until next time… 🙂