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Window or Delusion? The Duality of Social Media and the Search for Balance

Social media blamed for youth violence? It's not the whole story. This article argues individual responsibility and lack of real-life connection play bigger roles. Learn more about the true culprits and how to find balance in the digital age
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg Testifies At Joint Senate Commerce/Judiciary Hearing

We point fingers at them for the insults, the violence, the extreme actions, true carriers of collective malice. Indeed, like any tool, they can be utterly ruthless. Yet, the one truly accountable for our fragilities and our narcissisms is none other than ourselves.

by Marcello Veneziani

Was it social media that loaded the gun of murder and self-destruction, that incited the boy or pushed the girl towards a drastic and violent act, criminal or self-harming? Was it the scorn, the sexist or racist insult, the public shaming, the intimate image made public, the secret affair exposed? It is identified as the true culprit, the real instigator. But this “it” is an ineffable, fluid, and collective entity, impersonal like the “they say” of people, the gossip, the chatter of old. This “it,” in summary, is social media, accused of becoming an improper weapon, or rather an explosive and implosive device in the hands of fragile youths grappling with life. Social media is the new generational and universal scapegoat, the main and most recurrent suspect in the chain of suicides or assaults, then exhibited and “posted”; it is the sewer into which the worst miasmas of society are drained, the effluent waters that poison minds and pollute social relations. By entering private life and becoming the window of one’s loneliness, vanity, narcissism, social media has become a formidable weapon of mass destruction and self-destruction, under the inverse guise of a precious vehicle of socialization and individual promotion.

But is that really the case? The first objection that is usually raised is that the medium is neutral, it depends on how it is used. An easy phrase, common sense, but not entirely true. First, because social media is a machine that, to break through attention and gather likes, incites exaggeration, bitterness, targeting rather than explaining or fostering relationships. The second, more general objection is that mediums like social media are not neutral, but malleable. They can be bent in a positive or negative direction; but left to their own devices, they become our masters, grow over our heads and produce alienation, automatism, loss of intelligence, incitement to venting and to the pillory.

Yet, if used wisely, social media is a precious window, a bridge until recently unthinkable, an opening to the world and a great opportunity. And when grim and obtuse algorithms, or ideologies disguised as algorithms, do not intervene, they are a sliver of freedom; they give voice to dissent, otherwise hidden in the mass media administered from above, the factories of public opinion.

Even what are defined as fake news on social media, are so only in part, because they also have a positive side: they are the untold truths, the things that cannot be said in official channels, deemed incorrect in the eyes of woke conformism. Even on a civil and political level, social media plays a role of democratic supplementation and popular representation that partly compensates for the emptying of political and popular sovereignty. Here too, good and evil intertwine. To describe the entire arc, social media expands, concretizes, radicalizes, and poisons democracy. It gives its users and citizens the impression of being able to finally wield the sovereign’s scepter but then expands to the right, or rather the claim, to judge everything and everyone, even what one is not capable of judging and understanding.

Social media is also a formidable hotbed and collector of resentment, a transition from private, individual discontent to public and collective malcontent. It is the factory of discontent, the way to switch and channel individual dissatisfactions into mass protests and protest movements.

Social media also channels all the frustrations and desperations of a narcissistic society, raised to confuse rights with desires, and thus in constant struggle against reality and a world that does not submit to their desires.

But it’s not the media’s fault for the fragility of young people, their extreme vulnerability, and susceptibility. Nor is it the mirror’s fault if we engage in pathological narcissism. A stupid prank, a vain insult cannot be the cause of a suicide or a murder; it’s too little to turn into such a drastic and final decision; if it does happen, the main responsibility lies with the perpetrator, with those who are not capable of metabolizing, reacting sensibly, rejecting, minimizing, and overcoming malicious gossip. One cannot consider a prankster, or even a murderer, someone who mocks a boy who then commits suicide. It’s their fragility, their poor, painful, and losing relationship with the world that pushes them to so much for so little; they need help from family, school, media, education, and examples; but one cannot dump everything on the criminal ruthlessness of social media and others and demand censorship and condemnation.

So, what is the boundary line in social media between good and evil, between harm and opportunity? The trouble starts when social media does not accompany but replaces reality, that is, people, real life, bonds, the world, nature, bodies, contacts, flesh, and mind. The evil is the replacement of reality, living in a parallel and artificial world; that virtual reality that substitutes life and relationships with others.

Social media remains a great window onto the world, a positive opportunity to broaden one’s horizons and relationships, to exercise one’s freedom of expression, if it maintains two requirements: a sense of reality and a critical sense. That is, more adherence to real life and more critical distance to discern. The evil, the fault is not with social media but with that dual lack.

Panorama No.9 – February 21-27, 2024

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