Social Media and the Marketplace of Ideas

When I was first married, we lived in the room of my parents’ house that had been converted from a garage. My sister and her husband also lived with my parents, them in her old bedroom inside the main house.

One night, we were awakened by my sister pulling the screened door to the room free of the flimsy latch, yelling that my father needed help.

That was a terrible and important night for me as a young man. My mother had found my father collapsed in the bathroom, blood everywhere. He had been hiding a bleeding ulcer from everyone, waking that night in pain and passing out while vomiting blood.

My mother was running around frantically as my sister tried to calm her. While they called the ambulance, I cleaned up my father as best I could and helped rouse him.

They sent me with my father in the ambulance; the first hour or so at the hospital was terrifying as I watched the doctors try to stabilize my father.

He survived this, but in my early 20s I had to face a fact that I had been avoiding for many years—the inevitable and very real physical frailty of my father.

It is no easy thing for any of us to confront our parents’ weaknesses, to admit that our parents are wrong, even when the evidence is right there in front of us.

We humans want to believe what we want to believe. And we aren’t very well equipped for changing our minds, especially if we have to admit those beliefs were wrong all along.

No parent is superhuman, no parent is immortal.

Even in my early 20s, I was quite different than just a few years before, but I was still quite a ways from who I would become, who I am becoming. My journey was always moving away from my parents, my hometown, and what many people would consider mainstream.

Over nearly 60 years in this planet, I have watched as people struggle with unfounded beliefs, stubbornly clinging to and even promoting those unfounded beliefs.

In our era of social media, in fact, people spend a tremendous amount of time sharing provably false information because they are fatally committed to the beliefs at the expense of truth.

While this has been a common attribute in the U.S. for many years, maybe all of the country’s existence, the combination of the Trump administration and social media has certainly amplified the problem.

Technology has created a sort of bastardized marketplace of ideas on social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter, but it has also allowed almost anyone to communicate, create memes and manipulated images, and perpetuate any and everything as if all information has the same value or credibility.

Posting it makes it so.

Trump’s incessant (pathological) lying has invigorated the fact-checking business exponentially, but the free market has also allowed a partisan fact-checking backlash that uses the label of “fact check” to legitimize fake news and outright lies.

The result is that many people simply silo themselves with “their” evidence and languish in a perversely post-modern Frankenstein world of no facts matter—unless they are mine.

Two of the worst ways people communicate on social media are memes and images. I regularly warn people not to share any memes, but at least fact-check before posting.

As is becoming more common, however, doctored images are spreading faster than people can refute them.

Regardless of the ideology or partisan politics, that false information is being shared can never be justified. I spend far too much time posting links refuting memes, images, and social media posts.

What is frustrating here is that all I ever have to do is switch tabs to Google; in minutes, or even seconds, I have several examples of the meme or image being false.

And this poses a real problem for blaming technology. In fact, the problem is us, and our beliefs that resist evidence.

Social media also poses a real problem for our idealizing the marketplace and democracy. The market often rewards dishonesty and even abuse, and all voices are not, in fact, equal when some level of expertise is involved.

The entire world right now is witnessing that not everyone should be holding forth about Covid-19; epidemiologists and others in the medical profession are rightly the voices that should be elevated while some, as hard as this is to admit, should be silenced.

One of those beliefs is that things today are worse than ever, that the U.S. is more divided than ever (let’s not forget slavery and the Jim Crow era, just for some context about a divided country).

But we do have many calling for ways we can get along, come together.

My modest proposal is that we do not return to some naive belief in objectivity, but that we can agree to navigate social media and our IRL experiences with the same verifiable facts.

When we have video and audio that Trump said X, we must begin with that he did in fact say X.

Being the loudest or the most persistent doesn’t make you right. Posting provably false memes, images, and comments online does make you the problem, and proves that we shouldn’t value anything you believe.

My father was always merely a human before that night I saw him lying in the bathroom floor, bloody and unconscious. I was naive until than night, but to deny his mortality after seeing him right there in front of me would have been worse than delusional, a discredit to us both.

See Also

11 Warning Signs of Gaslighting | Psychology Today