Is Social Media Becoming Too Toxic?

The past month has seen celebrities wage war on ordinary people who dare stand up to them on social media, wielding their massive armies of followers like digital weapons of destruction. It has seen a growing number of journalists saying they plan to call it quits from Twitter as toxicity rises to a level even they can no longer stand amid everything from hurtful taunts about their children to outright threats of violence. Is social media simply becoming too toxic?

I honestly used to enjoy skimming Twitter in its early days. While there were certainly trolls and people trying to tear others down back then, there was also a lot of thoughtful, informed and insightful conversation as well. The good largely outweighed the bad and there was genuine constructive community building occurring.

Somewhere in the years since, social media lost its way.

Social media’s rising tide has lifted all boats, elevating even the most horrific and toxic voices singularly fixated on tearing society apart and placing them equal with those informed and measured voices trying to bring us together.

Ceramic figurines representing Twitter logo. (LLUIS GENE/AFP/Getty Images)

This is perhaps the central conundrum that social media sites face: how to empower the traditionally unempowered, without simultaneously allowing all of the pent-up hatred to overwhelm the good? Add to that mix the international perspective, especially the myriad ways in which repressive governments exploit hate speech and counter-terrorism laws to censor any voices that might dare to criticize their leaders. To a lawmaker in the US it might seem trivial to define what “terroristic speech” is and a non-brainer to require social media sites to ban it. To a repressive regime, all it takes is a law classifying government criticism as terroristic speech and suddenly there is a built-in pipeline to block all online criticism.

What went wrong with the great social experiment that was social media’s promise to give voice to the voiceless and bring all of us across the world together?

Even academia, that ivory tower of knowledge and reasoned debate, in which experts debate theories in public with eloquent speeches and a competition for whom has a better command of the literature or whose evidence-based experimentation is stronger, devolves into schoolyard taunts and threats of violence when it comes to social media. It is truly remarkable to see storied faculty members whose lists of awards and positions of power and prestige in their fields are legend, resort to profanity-laden diatribes like children when it comes to social media.

Of course, the public image of academia as brilliant dispassionate scholars working together in collaborative research above the political fray in the service of solving the world’s ills has always been merely a thin veneer above a toxic cesspool that in many ways has found its perfect match on social media. Racial and misogynic disparagement and discrimination have always occurred behind closed doors, but social media has increasingly brought those conversations into public view.

At one of social science’s best known annual conferences several years ago a storied professor took the stage to give an invited speech in which he launched a personal tirade against a competing researcher, taking aim at that other researcher’s heritage, ethnicity and national origin and claiming that people from that person’s country had no business being in academia and lacked the brain power to do research. When a formal complaint was lodged with the society over such a clear violation of its code of conduct, the society initially rejected the complaint, claiming the person had denied making the statements. Yet, in our social media world, of course, the faculty member posted a version of his remarks online while the audience live tweeted the remarks in realtime. Confronted with overwhelming evidence, the society eventually acknowledged the remarks had been made, but eventually ruled that the person was merely making a joke and that the use of racial or sexual epithets would not be considered a violation of the code of conduct if the speaker claimed they were simply a joke.

As I’ve watched so many of my female and underrepresented colleagues quit social media over the abuse they’ve faced, much of which has come from fellow academics, rather than anonymous trolls, it is disheartening to see just how hateful academia is when faculty are outside the classroom door and in the playground of social media.

It is particularly saddening to see just how vicious academics can be on social media, emboldened by the knowledge that tenure makes it nearly impossible for them to be terminated or sanctioned. One colleague published a paper in a top journal only to have it savaged on social media by other academics not because of any methodological or content concerns, but rather because they felt a woman had no business being in their field. While such beliefs have long been harbored in private in portions of academia, it is remarkable to see just how openly they are now expressed in social media. The very faculty training our next generation of leaders are setting an example for their students of venting their full emotional fury against everything they dislike.Seeing a colleague post a savage personal attack against another on Twitter is bad enough, but when they encourage their followers, ranging from other colleagues to their students, to add to the thread with their own personal attacks because the colleague being attacked isn’t on Twitter and so its safe to eviscerate them, that is a really sad commentary on a society in which even the learned elites that are supposed to be above the fray are actually down in the sewers egging on the trolls. It is even more sad when the person being attacked is actually on social media and sees all of that commentary and attempts to respond, only to be overwhelmed with horrific hate speech and threats of violence.

Originally Published by Forbes, continue reading here.