April 18, 2019

Social Media Misuse and Incivility is Hurting Democracy

May 5, 2018

We've all experienced it. An unkind remark while scrolling through the online comment section; then another, even more provocative. Finally, the attacks get personal as trolls disrupt the conversation, making unfounded claims and spinning conspiracy theories in an attempt to challenge others' opinions. In this new frontier of digital media, many acknowledge that civil discourse has become the exception, rather than the rule.

In fact, there’s so much incivility, animosity, and disrespect on social media that 65 percent of American users express disgust and frustration with online discussions. (I suspect the other 35 percent are the ones doing the trolling.) It's not just affecting individual social media users — it’s also hurting our democracy.

Two-thirds of U.S. adults consume at least some of their news on social media. And sadly, most of us are just reading headlines.

A 2016 study by computer scientists at Columbia University and the French National Institute found that 70 percent of Facebook users comment without reading an article, and 59 percent of links shared on social media have never actually been clicked. In other words, most people comment and spread news without ever reading it.

“This is typical of modern information consumption. People form an opinion based on a summary, or a summary of summaries, without making the effort to go deeper,” study co-author Arnaud Legout said in a recent interview with the Washington Post.

Worse yet, the study finds that these sort of unvetted peer-to-peer shares are key in determining what kind of news gets circulated and what disappears from public view. So our thoughtless retweets, and those of our friends, are actually determining our shared political priorities.

The problem isn't with social media itself, but with how it's currently being utilized. Anyone can read a headline, write a quick uninformed comment, and hit “return” on a keyboard. And while everyone has a right to his or her opinions, I believe those that are well reasoned, with a basis in fact, should carry more weight — especially when policy-making is involved.

The debate surrounding the Traverse City Arts Commission's plan to paint a temporary mural around the retaining wall at the Open Space is the most recent example of social media users working in direct conflict with the democratic process.

When plans for the mural hit the news, it exploded on social media. Basic misinformation, mixed with distrust of local appointed officials and fueled by inflammatory comments, created a perfect storm of opposition to the project. In the span of just four days, the Traverse City Open Space Mural Opposition Facebook page gained 450 members. And, as the current chair of the Arts Commission, I participated in no less than 15 different online discussion threads in an attempt to dispel myths and to defend the legitimate decision-making process.

Everything — from the cost and location of the mural, to the design, length of installation and the publicity used during the process — was being misrepresented by social media users. The $2,500 cost was inflated to $25,000. The unobtrusive retaining wall turned into a major impediment to lake views. The blues and yellows used in the design morphed into “neon” colors. The two-year rotating exhibit space became permanent. And nearly everyone refused to believe that this plan included multiple opportunities for public input. The accepted narrative was that we conspired behind closed doors to force this mural “down the throats” of area residents.

Long story short, the artists caved under the public pressure and pulled out of the project. They didn't want to come where they weren't welcome and felt threatened by the nasty emails, phone calls, and even negative reviews being left by trolls on their business' social media pages.

As a result, this virtual “angry mob” wiped out six months of careful planning by officials on three different City boards. We have little way of knowing how many of them were actually City residents or taxpayers, but we do know that none of them participated in the public process prior to approval. 

Even more depressing, just a handful of opponents bothered to show up at the well-publicized Arts Commission meeting immediately following the controversy. This is where next steps for the mural project were being considered and where public input was crucial. Many rejected the original project, but very few made their opinions known for future planning. At this rate, we are doomed to repeat the cycle of dysfunction.

Whether or not we agree with the actions of our government officials, it is our responsibility as citizens to engage during the process. Protesting a plan after it's been approved not only wastes the City's time and resources, it runs contrary to a very important principle of democracy — political participation.

Citizens have an obligation to become informed about public issues, to monitor the conduct of their leaders and representatives, and to express their own opinions. Most importantly, political participation in a democracy must be peaceful, respectful of the law, and tolerant of the different views of other groups and individuals.

So please, get involved. If you can't attend public meetings, read the agendas and minutes online. If you have a concern, send an email — or better yet, meet your representative for coffee. Real people with real issues are far more persuasive than anonymous online commenters. And elected and appointed officials are very receptive when comments are constructive — and when criticism is expressed in a respectful way.

Christie Minervini is a Traverse City resident who owns Sanctuary Handcrafted Goods in the Village at Grand Traverse Commons. She is passionate about gender equality, community development, and ending homelessness.



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