Earlier this month Sara Niccoli, the supervisor of the small western Montgomery County town of Palatine running for a seat in the state Senate, was bitterly criticized on social media for not placing her hand over her heart and reciting the Pledge of Allegiance.
A Facebook page was anonymously created solely for the purpose of hosting and encouraging angry nameless comments and threats condemning her lack of patriotism and fitness for public office, mostly in vulgar and acrid terms.
The deceit in that page was its failure to reveal that Ms. Niccoli is a member of the Religious Society of Friends—the Quakers, a Christian sect whose beliefs reject pledges and oaths of any kind. Instead of reciting the Pledge at public meetings and events, she simply rises to her feet in a personal act of respect.
Local religious leaders immediately came to her defense. Curiously, though, her opponent in the election, Sen. George Amedore, chose to have his spokeswoman read a generic statement reaffirming the senator’s commitment to religious liberty while denying any connection to the Facebook page.
He could have chosen to deplore this mendacity. Instead, his reaction was that of many politicians today, who seek to have it both ways by trying to appear above it all while avoiding direct denunciation of the false or antisocial declarations of those who just might vote for them.
Such equanimity would seem to fall somewhat short of the decisive demonstration of moral fortitude and public courage we’d like to see in ourselves, let alone our public officials.
Some see mostly advantages to the advent of social media like Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat and the like.
However, misanthropic anonymous comments and messages like those experienced by Ms. Niccoli are stark representations of the corrosive role that social media can play and are far from atypical.
And there are other flaws embedded within its nature and structure that also don’t bode well.
At first glance, social media offers greater and easier access to more information and to each other, immediately and without outside filtering or editing. What could possibly go wrong?
For one thing, Twitter and its kin are “stream of consciousness” communication modes that tend to make interactions rather shallow, with little or no chance for forethought.
They encourage emotional reactions over more considered responses to the point where many exchanges readily turn sharp, sarcastic and scathingly unkind.
In the process, social media seems to be warping our sense of the genuine. Somehow, for many people, the immediate reaction has become a mistaken indicator of authenticity.
We all have implicit biases that most of us work to subsume and overcome once we become aware of them, but sometimes get exposed in immediate emotional kneejerk reactions. Most of us would not want to be judged by what we say when we go flying off the handle.
Conversely, this commitment to be more measured and socially aware in one’s speech and actions gets derided as “political correctness”— something supposedly fake and hypocritical. Taken a step further, avoiding “political correctness” becomes a self-serving justification for offensiveness, incivility and thoughtlessness.
Emotions hit quickly; the brain simply takes longer to engage.
The kind of thing you may say off the cuff is not what makes you authentic — unless, of course, you insist on repeating it over and over.
Either way, though, it mostly indicates that you are intellectually lazy and socially deficient. It’s made no less so by the fact that some people find it convenient to use it to excuse and justify their own antisocial behavior.
Furthermore, according to Pew, younger Americans rely most on social media for their political news.
Whatever the shortcomings of professional journalists and the “mainstream media,” getting one’s news from “Facebook friends” and other unsanctioned sources is a troubling development for a society that entrusts its future to an informed electorate.
According to Gartner, a leading information technology research and advisory company based in Connecticut, social media poses unique challenges it has dubbed the “three V’s of Big Data”: Volume, Velocity and Variety.
How can we possibly process such a torrential amount of information, coming at us at an increasingly faster pace, on every topic under the sun?
Pheme, a project undertaken by a European consortium to develop an open source online tool to help newsrooms detect, track and verify facts and claims the minute they start spreading on Twitter, has added a fourth V—Veracity. (Appropriately, Pheme is the Greek god of fame and rumors.)
How can we possibly determine what is true and what is not? Certainly not by relying primarily on social media.
John Figliozzi of Halfmoon is a regular contributor to the Sunday Opinion section.