Social Media Brings Out the ‘Mr. Hyde’ in Us |

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We humans love anonymity. Since our beginnings, we have been fascinated by masks and disguises. It’s ironic that we struggle much of our lives to be recognized and then undo our success by putting on a mask. If we can be sure that no one will recognize us, we will do things that we would not dare to do like ourselves. Anonymity allows us to do our dirtiest deeds and leave our reputation intact.

Such cynical thoughts came to me last week while reading the many media reports on Facebook’s current problems. The first concerned the psychological effects of Facebook’s photo-posting platform, Instagram, on young women. Apparently the girls look at pictures of other girls who have more “likes” become depressed and suffer from “bad self-esteem”. This is not news. Most teenage girls have self-image issues. I suspect that if Eve apparently hadn’t skipped puberty or had some competition around the Garden, she would have suffered from a “bad self-image” as well. (Although not, sure, until she bit into that apple.)

The second problem involved not only Facebook, but almost all social media. It seems their own studies show that disinformation causes six times more “interactions” (views, likes, responses) than factual information. And the more these interactions stir the pot, the more ads Facebook and others can sell. It’s like an agitator getting a few neighbors to fight around the corner; then, when the whole neighborhood is watching, encourage everyone to get involved – after which the agitator sells tickets to the hubbub.

Traditionally, newspapers have always encouraged controversial letters from readers, but they also impose rules, check facts, demand decency, and take care to avoid defamation. Most will not print anonymous letters. Social media does not follow any of these restrictions. (Historians and readers of Ron Chernow’s bestseller “Hamilton” will recognize that in our past, newspapers routinely violated all of these precepts. Many signatures bore pseudonyms to protect the writer’s anonymity.)

As Robert Louis Stevenson told us in “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde,” we humans have a dark side – some darker than others. Parental training, academic and social pressures teach us to control it or to suffer the consequences. On the other hand, the various social media platforms offer a form of anonymity that allows the individual to shed cultural constraints and let their own dark, sociopathic Mr. Hyde do the post. When he is online he becomes the prankster kid in a Halloween mask, the college student writing the dirty limerick on the school bathroom wall, the big city congressman for a wild weekend, the shy young woman kissing stranger at masked ball, calling him obscene who gets her thrills by shocking invisible women.

Studies have shown that many of the forty percent of Americans who refuse to get vaccinated depend on social media for their medical information. Their attitude is difficult to understand, but their numbers reveal how many of our people prefer superstition to science; Likewise, Facebook’s own research showing the high percentage of members who prefer misinformation to facts reveals the thinness of the cultural veneer that covers our dark side.

When our Mr. Hyde grabs his (probably) abrasive username, he enters a world of his own making, a world filled with conspiracy theories and irrationality, where his delusions will be reinforced by others with notions. illogical similarities and where together they can swear at all others with impunity.

He’s not what Facebook envisioned, but he’s a money maker.

Chuck Avery is a retired teacher who grew up in the Bucktown neighborhood of Connersville.

Chuck Avery is a retired teacher who grew up in the Bucktown neighborhood of Connersville.


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