Q: When someone posts something offensive or factually wrong on my social media feed, how obliged am I to wade in and correct them?
A: There are words and aphorisms to describe doing nothing in the circumstance to which you refer. “Bystander syndrome” is one, the phenomenon of witnessing an attack, verbal or physical, and standing passively by. When I was at college, spotty men wielding clipboards would loiter outside the dining room on the day of student elections, informing their uninterested peers that “apathy led to the rise of Hitler”. These days, we are more likely to reach for a line sometimes attributed to the philosopher Edmund Burke: “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.”
The problem is that while in the material world, opportunities to correct a false or offensive opinion are rare, if we applied this principle to our lives online, most of us wouldn’t have time to hold down a day job.
And yet the question is still good. Does the thrill one gets scrolling through the awful opinions of others carry with it any responsibility? This is a hard thing to discern, because it assumes that you, the righteous one, are correct in your opinions, and that the opinions of those you seek to correct are wrong. It also assumes there is some value in the correction beyond the buzz it gives you for having told someone off.
In an ideal world, social media would function like the aftermath of a Christopher Hitchens event. Long after the lecture hall had emptied, he would still be at the front, debating with every last student who cared to approach him. Hitchens, and dogged politicos like him, saw nothing more valuable than the exchange of ideas, no holder of an opinion too lowly to engage with.
The difference is that talking to someone in the flesh carries with it at least a small chance of reaching, if not consensus, then some broader consideration for the other person’s view. I see little evidence for this online. Everyone grandstands. No one shifts their position an inch. Everyone is in a state of permanent outrage. And you can’t win. Those who do get involved lose hours of their time to no obvious advantage. Those who don’t – well, what are they even there for?
Actually, I think those people – who use social media more like TV, as a form of information gathering rather than a sporting event they themselves are engaged in – are the people to consider in your question.
When social media first appeared, its value seemed to be participatory. This was the radical promise, that it would open up the world to a multiplicity of voices. And it has. Many more people now have a voice than did. The problem is that because of the way Facebook and Twitter work, in order to be heard, they have generally to shout.
What’s striking to me is not the participatory aspect of social media, but the fact that, like so much traditional media, it is largely performative. Any back and forth is not about one individual interacting with another. Instead, it is about two performers on stage trying to sway the hearts and minds of the viewers. Two showboating people with passionate, well-resourced arguments can fight for the floating voter and although a lot of us are mainly there for the drama, I do occasionally feel my compass waver when following a well-executed exchange.
This is the public argument for wading in: that there are people watching and sensible voices need to be heard.
Then there is the moral argument: that if you happen upon, say, a racist opinion, you have an obligation to counter it. I find this one trickier. Whereas in a social setting, you are personally implicated when someone says something obnoxious, on social media, no one is addressing you personally. From a practical point of view, ignoring low-rent opinions from users without many followers seems more sensible than berating them and bringing them to wider attention.
But of course, where’s the fun in that? Correcting people has become recreational. There have been times, over the last few years, when I have had to sit on my hands not to post on Facebook when one of my relatives shared a piece from the Express about Brexit, every single line of which was wrong. Perhaps I should have told them. But I stopped myself because I knew that my intention was not to enlighten or to open debate, but to shame them for being idiots. I wanted them to feel bad.
In any case, finding out how people arrive at their opinions can be a better way to counter them than telling them to shut up. There is no obligation to wade in on social media because there is no obligation to be on social media in the first place. But if you do, bear in mind there is more than one way to do it. And then ask yourself why you want to in the first place.
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