Discussion: Is Social Media Still Our Conscience?

Last week, I discussed Roxane Gay’s Bad Feminist with my book club. It was a great discussion and a book I highly recommend for book clubs, since there’s so much in there to talk about. One thing got me thinking, though. In the chapter “When Twitter Does What Journalism Cannot,” Gay writes this:

Social networks are more than just infinite repositories for trivial, snap judgments; they are more than merely convenient outlets for mindless joy and outrage. They offer more than the common ground and the solace we may find during culturally significant moments. Social networks also provide us with something of a flawed but necessary conscience, a constant reminder that commitment, compassion, and advocacy neither can nor ever should be finite.

pp. 265

Bad Feminist was written in 2014. It’s 2021, and I’m not sure that take on social media is true anymore. In the last several years, we’ve seen social media be used as a tool for good, yes, but also as a way to push propaganda, spread misinformation, organize insurrections, and galvanize extremist groups. It’s exacerbated the political divide in the US through a horrible cycle of echo chambers bouncing off one another. Does social media still actually provide us with a conscience?

Throughout the Trump presidency, and especially after January 6, I read and listened to a lot of commentary surrounding extremist views and how people come to believe obvious lies. One thing that stuck out to me is that social media has made it possible for extremist groups to seem louder and bigger than they actually are. One or two people saying “the election was stolen!” in the local coffee shop is easy to shrug off, but it’s more difficult when all your feeds are filled with that same idea. Social media magnifies things, and that’s a good thing when it’s, say, mental health awareness, but not so much when it’s an idea that threatens democracy.

I’ve had an up-and-down experience with social media since I first made my Facebook account in high school. Pinterest introduced me to feminism, Reddit is where I commune with other nail polish lovers and learn about plants, YouTube gives me laughs and yoga flows, and I’m begrudgingly admitting that Facebook groups can be nice. Instagram is my most heavily used platform, and I have been able to connect with old friends on there as well as learn about the antiracism movement and get help examining my own biases, especially last year.

But as I touched on early this year when thinking about intention, even the good parts of social media are a drain on both my time and mental bandwidth if I’m not careful. Sometimes, even though I get a lot of value out of the advocacy I see on Twitter and Instagram (the conscience Gay talks about), it just gets to be too much. There’s always another cause, another victim, another tragedy to focus on. I can’t count the number of posts I’ve seen recently along the lines of “If you care about this, you must also care about this. If you’re talking about this, you should also be talking about this.” It can get overwhelming. To be fair, the world we live in is overwhelming. But when it’s presented like this, social media isn’t so much a conscience as it is a guilt-trip. Balance gets lost.

I ended up splitting my Instagram account last week because of this. Now I have my main account, where I follow friends, local organizations, and influencers I like, and my second account, where I follow a lot of national social justice organizations whose work I value but whose posts often feel cloying. This way, I can still follow causes and organizations I care about in a way that lets me preserve balance.

Nuance is another thing that social media doesn’t do well. Not even on Reddit or Facebook groups, where the potential for real discussion is higher. Increasingly I’ve learned that while social media is great for introducing me to new things, like the Enneagram, I only start to get real understanding once I start exploring a topic away from social media. I think this is why Twitter can be so toxic sometimes. People hold their beliefs for so many different reasons, and it’s difficult to both express and understand nuanced ideas in a short-form format where most of us are just quickly scrolling.

Plus, because of the fast-paced nature of social media, there’s often a pressure to talk about a thing now, or share a post now, or donate now, without taking the time to think or research. That not only perpetuates the echo chambers that have come to dominate social media, but also disallows room for nuance. How can you be nuanced when you’re putting a statement together in thirty minutes or less? I’m slowly learning not to give in to pressure like that (I think gardening and meditation are helping me with that, given the slow nature of both of those things), but I’m still susceptible. Too often I think I let social media commentators define what it means to be a good person.

In her statement, Gay acknowledges that social media, as a conscience, is “flawed but necessary.” I can’t deny that social media has been hugely influential throughout my teen years and into adulthood in shaping my beliefs. Growing up, I was mostly surrounded by people with more conservative views, and having social media available helped expose me to other viewpoints. It has continued to serve as a reminder that people experience the world differently than I do. But big-picture-wise, social media disseminates just as much – or more? – vitriol and misinformation and extremism as it does healthy advocacy and awareness. Social media, more than anything else, is an idea amplifier. Given all the toxic and hateful ideas that get amplified alongside the good ones, I’m not sure that the good ideas outweigh the bad. I’m not sure social media, if it is still our collective conscience, is a healthy one.

If you made it this far, I’m genuinely curious what your thoughts are on social media as a collective conscience. Do you get good value from social media? Is the value worth all its pitfalls?

Photo by Sara Kurfeß on Unsplash

11 comments

  1. It’s tricky, because there are algorithms at work that make it easy to become siloed. Facebook is particularly bad in this way – for example, there are friends on my FB page whose posts I never EVER see, because FB will show you posts of people it thinks you share idealogy with, and it will hide people you disagree with. In this way, it kind of makes two separate facebooks- one hard left, and one hard right.

    For what it’s worth, I despise my social media accounts, but they’re how I interact with MANY of my friends and family, so they must remain.

  2. I’d be apt to call social media groupthink before collective conscience. I didn’t grow up with social media and my interaction with it (not including wordpress) is pretty limited. Other than a tourettes facebook group, I do almost nothing on social media. Also the folks I friend are all pretty much clones of me, so I don’t really get any dissenting viewpoints. For the most part, I think it’s pretty useless for exposure to new (and accurate) ideas, but I haven’t really given it much of a chance, and I doubt I will any time soon. Helpful? Probably not.

    • I wonder if the split between who finds social media useful as a conscience and who doesn’t falls along generational lines. I sometimes wish I had grown up without the Internet too, because I feel like I sometimes use it to avoid/replace the awkward experiences that make up human connection. But I can’t change time, so I have to work with what I’ve got I guess. As we all do

  3. For better or for worse, I do think that the ability to see more than what’s in your own small community or bubble is extremely valuable, and social media excels at that. Yes, there’s misinformation and all the bad things, but I think the skills we learn over the years to identify what’s real, who’s honest, and how we as adults can consume it in a productive way (like you making a separate Insta) is great and also valuable.
    To answer the question, yeah, I think social media is my conscience to some extent and I’m okay with that.

    • I always appreciate your take on all things media! Thinking through it more, what you’re saying about social media being your conscience to some extent is pretty true for me too, which is why I’m not ready to let it go completely.

  4. Totally agree! Might even consider the idea of having two separate Instagram accounts, like i want to know whats happening around the world but not to be bombarded with terrible news man

    • Yes, it’s only been a few days with the split accounts and it’s been very nice. (And I haven’t even missed anything I thought I would miss.)

  5. Like anything you read, you have to take what you see on social media with a grain of salt. I believe we tend to exaggerate when sharing online and the truth gets skewed. It’s easy to take what we read on Facebook or Twitter as fact because we’re consumed by social media — not to mention, there are “news outlets” that are masking as such because social media allows them to with ease. I don’t think you get any type of value from social media because “spreading news and awareness” is just a fancy form of marketing in order to get likes and followers now. It’s not news, it’s opinions and that can get misjudged as news.

    That’s my opinion, although I do agree with you that social media helped to shape my beliefs and open my eyes to the world around me. I think social media changed drastically and although it still can shape beliefs and open people’s eyes, I don’t think it’s doing that in a positive way that it did for me. I think it’s negatively impacting both sides.

    • It’s definitely difficult to parse through what’s real and what’s just marketing. Have you pared down or changed the way you use social media because of that? It does feel like it’s changed in the past few years, and I know the pandemic has made a lot of us rethink how we use a lot of things, social included.

    • When I was younger, I most definitely overshared on social media (like a lot of teenagers do). It wasn’t until Facebook started sharing your memories when I was like “Wow, this is cringey! What was I thinking?” Since then, I really don’t share much. The only time I do share is if I post a pic on Instagram or add to my story, otherwise I only like things or tag people in the comments to share.

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