A friend well-schooled in all things biblical said not long ago, “Social media may not be able to make the blind see, but it certainly allows the dumb to speak.”
His modification of Matthew 11:5 (also Isaiah 35:5) was irreverent, insensitive and politically incorrect. It’s also fairly accurate, but today’s message is for those who find it offensive: You can ignore it.
We don’t flex that muscle nearly as often as we should.
Almost every day the media, social and otherwise, blow up over one incident or another.
People freak out over who stands and who doesn’t for the National Anthem.
A commotion sparked when one patron visited a home décor store and saw a stalk of cotton blossoms for sale. She thought reflected poor judgment because it was a reminder of the horrid history of slavery. Via Twitter or Facebook or Instagram, the patron shared her outrage.
Now a couple of points: (1) The cotton incident may or may not have happened. A competitor, a fired employee, a social scientist may have concocted the whole thing to cause trouble or conduct an experiment by studying reactions. That happens more than we know. (2) If it did happen, the first person with the option to ignore was the shopper.
Some observers say people have become hypersensitive and more prone to activism.
Maybe, but taking offense has long been a part of our culture. It can be a good thing. If you think about it, taking offense is what ended slavery.
Still, consider this: Before the internet, the patron might have shared his or her thoughts about the cotton stalks with the manager, with a few friends or even written a strongly worded letter to the home office. But with social media, as it happened, tens of thousands chimed in with amens or cleverness or vitriol.
This is where traditional media comes into the picture. Reporters instinctively respond to conflict the way flies are drawn to honey. Readers and viewers will give time and attention to a controversy whether the stakes are high or don’t exist at all.
The media need eyes and ears, and so we have come to a time when social media drives traditional media.
It wasn’t always this way.
Many years ago, a wonderful and openly daft gentleman came into the newsroom where I worked and approached an editor. The man said he was on a mission. God had told him to reconstruct, in detail, the Ark of the Covenant and parade it through the main street of town. The editor, also a Christian and well-schooled in all things biblical, responded, “God told you to do this?” The visitor nodded. The editor said, “Well, I’ll keep my ears open, and if God tells me to put this in the newspaper I will.” The man left, perfectly happy.
Today, the situation might be different. If it started on social media it could go viral and the traditional media, deprived of the opportunity to filter for newsworthiness, would dive right in.
Scholars who are tracking this shift in the social dynamic have adopted the word “amplication.” It’s a good word, but context matters.
Sellers of breakfast cereal or shoes or light bulbs like it when their products are amplified on social media. Sales rise.
Similarly, amplification of good deeds and humanitarian causes, such as the unprecedented opportunities to donate to help those in the path of hurricanes, is a good thing.
The downside is that those who drive discord and division have the same platforms. They may be small in numbers, but they are amplified, too. And it’s our nature to react more strongly to that with which we disagree than that with which we agree. Said more directly, social media has at least equal power to bring us together as it does to drive us apart.
Also, there’s no voice of moderation or solution-seeking, as was true, at least in part, back when traditional media set the agenda. The more outrageous the comment, the more popular. Peacemakers need not apply.
What could prove decisive is whether we ramp up our power to ignore. In the old days, perhaps, we were better at changing the channel or turning the page. Social media draws people in, especially people at the extremes. Not every provocation requires or even deserves a response.
There are times when ignorance is bliss, and there are times when ignoring is the better option.
Charlie Mitchell is a Mississippi journalist. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.