America Divided: Social media becomes a hot spot for hateful discourse
The proliferation of hatred and intolerance on social media has exploded in recent years. Users are being attacked for religious and political beliefs, as well as social affiliations. The negative conversation is causing tension and discord like our country has never seen before.
Psychology and communication experts say the lack of restraint online, something normally present during face-to-face conversations, is called the "disinhibition effect." It's a good explanation of why some people post hateful or divisive comments on social media when they would never do so in person. The lack of inhibition coupled with an increase in anonymity is a recipe for hate.
If you had to answer for your actions online tomorrow, how would you be judged? Do you spread positivity and compassion? Or do you troll strangers' social media accounts and post angry opinions? Those who fit the later are people Kalamazoo resident Kyle Naugle has seen a lot of.
"Now in this social media world that we're in, it's becoming more and more obvious that this is an issue," Naugle said. "With the arguing online and the hateful posts."
So many in our country seem to prefer a social media identity that is negative, and it's likely because of anonymity.
"It's easy on the internet to not be authentic because you're hiding behind a keyboard and a computer screen," Naugle said.
Annette Hamel, a professor in Western Michigan University's School of Communication, said, "Anonymity frees us to behave in ways that we wouldn't behave in a face-to-face environment."
While hateful speech isn't productive to a healthy conversation, in some cases, the people behind the comments are searching for like minds, Hamel said.
"It can be a way for these people with socially inappropriate opinions to connect with one another and to feel like they're not alone," she said. But when words are used to incite argument or unburden oneself of pent-up anger, Hamel said, that causes harm not good.
Kalamazoo NAACP delegate Gwendolyn Hooker has seen that harm firsthand.
"There has been just an outbreak of a lot of posts, tweets, and things that are very hateful," Hooker said.
The NAACP has received more complaints and incidents recently than they were ever prepared to deal with, Hooker said, including everything from racism, to discrimination, to outright hate.
"I think it's a really sad state of affairs that we're experiencing right now in this country," she said.
Both Hamel and Hooker said we need to go back to the basic tenants we learned as children: treat others as you'd like to be treated; think before speaking; and if you can't say something nice, don't say anything at all.
"You can take a few minutes before you respond, or you don't have to respond," Hooker said. "Sometimes, the best answer is no answer."
Hamel said that doesn't mean you have to be a doormat: "It doesn't mean you have to except everything other people say."
People can still feel confident in their own beliefs without having to argue their merit with others, Hamel said. If you do have to engage with online debates, she suggests doing it with the goal of understanding all sides.
"But that requires a maturity beyond the desire to lash out," she said. "The desire to hit and run."
Or maybe social media isn't the place to have these debates at all.
Naugle said respectful, face-to-face dialogue might be the better option. In the end, it will leave you with an online reputation you can be proud of.
"If you want to have a conversation, let's meet up over coffee," Naugle said. "Let's talk about it, and do it in a loving way instead of always trying to attack others."