Social media has long been a bellowing cesspool, less a place to exchange ideas and learn new things than the worst sort of echo chamber that not only reinforces existing beliefs but also amplifies the very worst elements of society. It makes people believe in lunatic conspiracy theories and extremist ideologies, normalising what might have once seemed fringe fanaticism. It emboldens people to ‘other’ anyone who disagrees with you even to a small degree – look at how the Woke notoriously eat their own at the first sign of transgression or bad behaviour, even if that behaviour was decades ago, and no matter how minor it might be; and equally, it allows weird alliances to form, with – for example – hate-filled bigots and censorial anti-porn campaigners welcomed with open arms by the supposed Free Speech Right, partly because they have shared enemies and partly because deep inside, large chunks of the Free Speech Right continue to have an almost pathological fear and hatred of sex and sexual freedom.
There’s a grotesque ugliness to social media that seems to be continually increasing. The desire the cancel people – and ideas – has spread like wildfire across the political divide, and into ever more niche circles, where once political differences barely intruded. Now we have a pervasive need to excommunicate anyone who says the wrong thing, who holds the wrong opinions, who tells a bad joke or who might not have signed up fully and unquestioningly to whatever movement and whatever speech codes have just emerged. This culture has been dominated by the Left in recent years, and so has allowed the Right to claim the moral upper hand – even now, it’s frankly baffling to think that we live in a world where it’s the ‘liberal’ Left that is demanding that opinions, ideas, artwork and history are shut down and silenced, and the ‘reactionary’ Right that is virulently pro-free speech. But of course, we don’t really live in that world. I don’t doubt that some on the Libertarian Right really do hold freedom of expression sacred, but for most, it seems that ‘free speech’ only matters when the people being cancelled are those they agree with and approve of. Once someone says or does something that they object to – that they believe is beyond the pale – then the Right will just as eagerly and viciously organise pile-ons and campaigns to hound people out of jobs, companies out of business, ideas out of circulation. Cancel Culture is equally popular on both sides of the political divide.
If you’ve chosen your side and are absolutely certain that that side can never be wrong about anything, then these might be the glory days. For those of us caught in the middle, it’s increasingly depressing. Twitter is starting to make me feel like a kid caught between two rowing parents, blinded by emotional anger, neither of whom make any sense. Watching people who once seemed sensible and witty slide off the deep-end into finger-wagging, moral indignation and hate-filled abuse/threats is depressing, to say the least. Wondering if these people actually believe what they say or are simply, cynically lying in order to advance their position in their social group is migraine-inducing. We’re increasingly stuck between two groups of dangerous extremists battling it out, with the worry that, at best, both will start to exert a cultural influence that will be pernicious and silencing across the political divide; at worst, that the lunatic fringe of both groups will spill further into the real world. I worry that we are seeing the beginnings of new secular-religious cults that will be as dangerous as any genocidal fanatics that we currently have. We’re already seeing this to a degree – and I fear it will get worse unless something dramatic happens. After all, if you are utterly, totally certain that non-believers are evil, corrupt and dangerous, then it’s easy to step beyond the restraints that stop acts of terrorism – God (in whatever form) is on your side, after all.
I’ve long been cynical about the expansion of mental illness definitions, but it’s increasingly hard not to agree with those people who say that social media is causing mental illness. I can feel it myself – increasingly, reading Twitter often feeds fill me with such a deep depression and a sense of nagging anxiety that I’m painfully aware that it is affecting my health and work. I doubt very much that I’m alone in that. It’s only the hope that all this insanity is currently reaching critical mass, and that it will finally implode, that keeps me going. But I’ve been hoping that in vain for a few years. Things might well just get worse, especially if Trump is reelected and we have a messy, chaotic Brexit – two very distinct possibilities for the end of this stressful year. It might seem that the obvious answer is to step away from social media, which we’ve tried – but these culture wars have spilt out so far into the real world that they become impossible to avoid. News sources have generally abandoned all pretence of impartial fact sharing and are now nakedly activist based – headlines and news stories tell you what to think, with emotion-driven, fact-ignoring propaganda. Essentially, everything is now social media, with all the vitriol, hatred, self-righteousness and blissful ignorance that goes along with it. And ignoring something doesn’t make it go away. Being informed of the collective insanity we’re now living with might ultimately be the lesser of two evils, but my God, it’s draining.