Social Media Terror Scrolling Helps Nobody

Trolling has never been more dangerous.

Over the festive season, I’ve enjoyed watching a number of films without feeling any guilt whatsoever. With all places of hospitality closed for the foreseeable future – I’m unlucky enough to be in a tier four area – the wonder and pleasure provided by Christmas cultural features can be appreciated even more. One of the real gems has been ‘Carol’. Directed by Todd Haynes, it stars Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara as lovers pulled apart by a socially conservative society. 

There are many amazing, breathtaking things about the film. That it was set in the early 1950s however, meant modern technology – specifically social media – was non-existent. I appreciated its absence from the drama more than I expected. On the surface, this seems illogical. My life and those of hundreds of millions of people are shaped by social media. Every day is spent waking up and looking at twitter, Instagram or the latest Facebook messages. Why would I be so pleased to see a film that contained nothing linked to an intrinsic part of my life?

Mainly because of what social media has become, especially in 2020. At its best, platforms like Twitter, and even TikTok provide an inventive, exciting means for the spread of ideas. Whether academic or cultural, schools of thought that may have been far more exclusive in the 1950s can be scattered onto the internet, freely available for everyone. There will no doubt be a basic guide to every philosopher on YouTube, with brief clips to long lectures. The degree of accessibility provided by the internet must be celebrated. 

Social media has also driven individual communication. In the past, after graduating, an individual may never see somebody they were at university with ever again. Even if they got on well, unless their paths crossed by coincidence, that was that. Say farewell to a friend in the 1950s and your only form of reunion may have been at the same nursing home 60 years later. Obviously, this has entirely altered (for better or worse). Constant communication allows for reunions and maintaining connections throughout life. 

Throughout ‘Carol’, characters accessed news via newspapers. While these remain, their hegemony for gaining news and comment is in decline. Their monopoly has decreased because of the internet and social media. For seeking news, someone can look at a website, a tweet or TikTok post to learn about the world. That individuals have more ways of accessing the news, and a wider variety of people can shape the news, demonstrates how our society has altered in the 2020s from the 1950s. 

Social media has become essential during the coronavirus pandemic. While individuals have been stuck indoors, social media allowed personal connections to remain. Through Zoom calls or FaceTime, humans have used their ingenuity to replicate elements of in-person conversation. Obviously, it will never be the same. But it does provide a worthy alternative when governments forced that to become the only option. Not least for those leaving alone, a phone call is better than nothing. 

The power of the internet has also been demonstrated when finding out new information about the pandemic. In the early days, journalists would live tweet the daily government press conferences that contained the latest information about the pandemic. Later on, the outlines of new restrictions or freedoms have often been shared online simultaneously as a minister gives a speech. 

In this wish to access news is a desire not to remain ignorant. Nobody wants to miss out on key information essential for future actions. Not being aware of coronavirus rules or the threat it poses is harmful and dangerous. The wish then, to constantly be on social media, comes with good intentions. Someone may tweet a link to a helpful article, a website someone was previously unaware of. A video explaining the guide, criticising the government or lockdown, can allow for intelligent critical thinking. 

However, this constant scrolling and search for information can be harmful in the short and long term. In the short term, it no doubt increases stress. To see that cases are rising and fears of hospitals being overwhelmed furthers the notion society is in the apocalypse with no end in sight. Disagreements on social media on any policy can easily become vicious and descend into the gutter, increasing someone’s defensiveness and distrust of others. 

In the long term however, social media, whether the information is new or not, can heighten fears of powerlessness. New information is always arising. New tweets or Instagram photos will always be posted. Given the influence of social media, there is a feeling society and its future are being created by others rather than ourselves. Unless we are posting information ourselves, our relevance and sense of agency will diminish. I imagine this plays a part in why so many people, myself included, often tweet far too much. 

It is clear then that social media can provide more harm than simply linking to an unreliable, factually wrong article. Much as I love and value journalism, all parties – newspapers, TV, radio, online – have the capacity to promote information which isn’t true. Especially during the pandemic, figures, statistics, the effectiveness or otherwise of lockdowns and masks has been subject to such debate and dissent that the reality is far more ambiguous. 

Over the last few years, I have become far more cynical of New Year’s Resolutions. Firstly, they are never met. Secondly, they fail to take account for how we as humans change throughout a year. Resolutions made in January may be irrelevant by June. Nonetheless, I will try to endeavour to occasionally take time away from the news. Me not looking at a website for 24 hours will not harm myself or others in the long term. Provided I am aware in the long term of what news has taken place, that is far more sensible. 

Some try to do this by consuming their news in one boost rather than throughout the day. I find opening up articles in different tabs, before reading through them at the end of each day can be far more reflective and useful. Often, excellent newsletters like Helen Lewis’ and Ian Leslie’s provide great links to the best articles that may have remained undiscovered. 

The quantity of news consumed is not necessarily the same as the quality. It is important to remain critical, not be ignorant, but be selective with when and where to consume news. While a plurality of sources, in print and online, can only be welcome, with this comes a responsibility on the consumer to determine which sources to access. If we are overwhelmed, this can drive cynicism which leads to less knowledge. Far better would be occasionally taking time out of the news before returning to learn what, good or bad, is happening in the world. Who knows, with the state we’re in, that spare time could be used to search out more movie gems like ‘Carol’. 

Trolling has never been more dangerous.