Editorial: The Dangerous Side of Social Media

Words have weight. Ideas have gravity.

And when the two join in the action, there can be consequences.

On Thursday, an angry man who appears to have reached his boiling point in the social media soup made inflammatory claims online. He picked up a gun and set off to turn the passion in his mind into a purpose in the world.

And someone died.

In this case, it was 42-year-old Ricky Walter Shiffer. After going public with his political beliefs for some time, they boiled over after search warrants were served on Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago estate last week. This led him to the FBI field office in Cincinnati, setting off a chain of events that ended in his death.

The situation mirrors the filming of Tree of Life at Squirrel Hill. Authorities say Robert Bowers had been posting on the right-wing social media site Gab until Saturday morning, when he ended his screed with “I’m going.”

The difference between the two incidents is the number of bodies. Bowers survived the October 2018 bloodshed and is awaiting trial, accused of killing the 11 who didn’t.

Social media is easily dismissed as frivolous and nonsensical. He tells about our lives and shares images of our breakfast. It’s helpful as we keep in touch with extended family and reconnect with friends we haven’t seen since graduating from high school.

But we must recognize the potential danger it represents.

Social media works with algorithms that identify the things we want to say and hear. It listens to what we broadcast and returns the same to us. Social media is the ultimate echo chamber – not just a bubble but an amplifier.

And the only way to survive it is to recognize what is happening.

It is extremely important to use social media not only responsibly, but with a healthy dose of questioning. Check the sources of accounts that share information. Follow accounts that are the opposite of your positions to counter confirmation bias. Read the story, not just the title.

But more than that, take the time to put your phone down. To close your browser. Instead, get a newspaper or magazine. Talk to real people about completely different things.

Find things that attract you to people instead of opposing them.

The best way to combat the dangerous side of social media is to stay away from it.

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