The gunshots ring out, and I can’t believe how loud they are. You can hear them in perfect crispness over the speakers of my television. They were broadcast on a cable news network after being recorded by a simple device that we all now carry in our pockets. The audible pops of the gunfire were bone-chilling. The fact that they came not on the streets of Mosul, but footsteps away from Dealy Plaza in Dallas made it all the more terrifying.
Last week in Dallas, five police officers were killed. They were gunned down in an apparent retribution for a string of shootings involving police officers and black men. One of these shootings was partially livestreamed on Facebook, via a smartphone, by the victim’s girlfriend. She felt it was her best recourse. Few could blame her. The role social technologies have played in both the recent shootings of citizens at the hands of police officers and the mass shooting of police officers in Dallas is extremely notable. Social technologies are undoubtedly taking an active role in both tragedies and triumphs. They also have become a critical part of our daily lives. In fact, we can’t live without them. They have become our connection to news, sports, weather, current events, friends, family, and work. They allow us the opportunity to freely and immediately share our passions, our dreams, our hopes, as well as our thoughts regarding both political sentiment and recent tragic events.
My Facebook news feed recently included a meme that calls the democratic nominee for president “The B—ch of Benghazi.” Really? The former first lady of the United States? A former secretary of state? The first female presidential nominee of a major American political party? The “B—ch of Benghazi?” Consider those who would share opinions surrounding their feelings that black lives do not actually matter or that every single cop is a cold-blooded killer. There are those who would refer to a business tycoon turned politician as a closet member of a party that once attempted the mass genocide of an entire race of people. There are those who use the “N”-word or “Muslim terrorist” to describe the current President of the United States. It’s this rhetoric that is the fuel of the flames that burn through the heart of America. It is this hate, this vitriol, that has invaded our smartphones, our social news feeds, and our cable television news. It divides us: black and white, donkey and elephant, cop and citizen. It boils down complicated issues into digestible bytes that may be great for internet shock value but are definitely not great for understanding the truth.
As we are all brought closer through the medium of social technologies we are divided by our own biases. We have begun to treat those around us not as living, breathing human beings but as aliens in some perverse video game where we can point our digital weapons and shoot. As our thoughts and lives are shared unfiltered and our inhibitions often go unchecked, we can forget that on the other end of that screen is a person. Would those who would share the “The B—ch of Benghazi” meme have the courage to physically face the person it refers to and spit out those words? The six-foot tall, armed Secret Service agent standing next to this White House heat-seeking missile might, at least for a moment, give that person pause. Would police officers and citizens alike be so quick to pull a weapon if they had an evening to share a meal with the person they are pointing that weapon towards? What these social technologies give us is cover to say things we never would in real life. Dating apps allow shy boys to talk to girls. YouTube allows undiscovered singers to find their voice and their following, and various social networks allow people to express themselves in ways they might hesitate to in a crowd full of people.
It’s certainly significant that our two choices for the American Presidency currently are someone who makes a federal investigation seem like a routine trip to the grocery store and another who makes basic rationality seem as complicated an astrophysics dissertation. It’s not just significant, the heart of our nation may hang in the balance. Yet, does this fact give us the right to trade sensible and lucid arguments for petty internet memes? Today we share everything digitally: pictures of our babies, the food we’re about to eat, the movie we just saw, live video of us at work, and, now jarringly, our political opinions. These leanings frequently turn ugly. It’s politics and it is ugly; it always has been and likely always will be. From Julius Caesar to Donald Trump, politics is not for the faint of heart. Vaunted writer Hunter S. Thompson once actually typed that former first lady Nancy Reagan gave the best (man, I can’t even write the act down, but I think you can imagine) in Hollywood. About him being a devoted football fan is the only decent thing the Godfather of Gonzo ever had to say about Richard Milhous Nixon. Entire radio networks have been built around bombastic hosts and devoted listeners angrily spewing their latest outrage at the current establishment. If you want to get into politics, you better have a thick skin. The difference today for us mere mortals who sit on the sidelines of the political playing field is if you’re disturbed by the views being shared, you can’t just close the book or change the radio dial. It’s right there, inside your digital home, your news feed and it’s coming from people you probably know and people you very well may care deeply about. More importantly this digital hate, these pixels of disgust, these megabytes of fury are spilling out into the real world and are becoming as real as the bullets that have recently been fired in Minnesota, Louisiana, and Texas and ripped apart civilians and cops alike.
Look, I understand that if I don’t like something somebody posts online, I can turn away. I can unfriend him or stop following her with nothing more than the push of a button. That’s not the point. And the point is not political. There are certain lines in society we don’t cross, and I think all of us are granted friends or followers who if they aren’t dancing with that line they’re molesting it. The point is that there is a very real and palpable anger in this country over issues of race, religion, class, and political affiliation. This fire is being stoked by social technologies. It didn’t create this vacuum of anger, but it is certainly helping to fuel it. And if this presidential election is teaching us anything, it’s that the person with the most outlandish views will get the shares, clicks, and pageviews. A “B—ch of Benghazi” meme is going to get a lot more online traction than a “Pray for Peace” meme. I don’t make the news; I just report it. And every time we dress one political candidate up like a Nazi and then the other like a terrorist, we fuel this division and add acidic water to the boiling pot.
We are standing at a historic crossroads today. Much like the middle of the last century in America, when a generation brought television into their living rooms and saw, with their own eyes, the struggles for civil rights and the unbearable human costs of the war in Vietnam. It wasn’t television that led protestors to demonstrate the 1968 Democratic National Convention. But it was television that helped strengthen the anger behind the demonstration as well as broadcast to the world the violence that ensued. It was also television that allowed stunned viewers to witness the live murder of Lee Harvey Oswald at the hands of Jack Ruby in 1963.
Let me be clear, social technologies are astronomically game-changing. And right now they’re in their infancy. These platforms are like Jonathan and Martha Kent stumbling across a super-baby who can lift a car. We are only beginning to understand what they’re capable of and what they will mean to our humanity. What they have done for our society cannot be overestimated. They have helped topple dictators, reunited lost loved ones, given us the lady in the Chewbacca mask, and helped Taylor Swift unite with some very loving fans. Inherently they’re good because they promote understanding, goodwill, and love. They bring us together, which can’t be a bad thing. But they also allow everyone a voice. Even those voices that larger society might find repulsive or disgusting.
Today, we are on the precipice of a transparent society. Our movements will be endlessly documented. Much of our daily lives will be photographed or videoed. We can broadcast our thoughts, no matter how ludicrous, instantly to the masses. This all is already happening. Have an unusual workout at the gym? Somebody may be making a video of you in action and posting it to their social wall, of course without your consent. Wear too tight a shirt into Wal-Mart. Your mug might already be on the world wide web. Many do find a sense of relief when they hear of a terror attack or environmental disaster and can learn very quickly that loved ones are safe right from the convenience of a smartphone app. It’s great when you can live stream concerts and marches, but what about murders and rapes. It’s fun to have a front row seat to the sold-out U2 concert, get a quick check in from your favorite local news anchors preparing for their broadcast, or have unfiltered access to unrest in Indonesia. It can be rightly argued that the ability to livestream is serving an important public interest when it holds police officers accountable for their actions. But what happens when you tune in to a feed only to find an outrageous act of sexual perversion or the midst of a murder. Those are images you can never un-see, even if you never asked to see them in the first place. What about when your scrolling through your news feed and you see babies, cute kittens, and then BAM! an expletive-laced diatribe from an old colleague about how every single Muslim on the planet is a terrorist, quickly testing your fundamental belief in the freedom of expression?
This path towards transparency has already been laid for us, and we are traveling down this road. We’re not going back. The growing pains will be very real, as they have been already. My prayer is that our children and grandchildren will look upon this time with awe, as we now do with the generation that overcame the unrest of the 1960s. That we will look back and see as a nation that we faced turbulence brought on by societal pressures and augmented by technological innovation and we overcame it, making us stronger in the process. I pray for this considering the alternative is, like viewing the livestream of a beheading or an inappropriate internet meme, sickening.