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Don't blame social media – blame yourself

Social media: If there’s a term you can’t escape when viewing ANY news outlet or report, it is this one. To say that we are a society intertwined with and inextricably connected by online services like Facebook and Twitter is not news. We use social media every day, sometimes all day. We stare at our phones like zombies, ignoring those present to speak with those absent. We argue with politicians and celebrities, watching as their minute-to-minute idiocy is propelled into the ether, where carelessly chosen words make or break careers in nanoseconds. Through it all, we furrow our brows and gnash our teeth. Too many of us, you see, do not use social media. Instead, social media uses us.

There is no ignoring the services, the websites, the applications themselves. What is more commonplace in America than watching television? These days, we don’t just watch; we participate via websites and through smartphone and tablet applications. Ericsson Consumerlab claims that fully 62 percent of us use social media while we watch television – a number that has gone up by almost one-fifth since just last year. More and more television shows are offering “synchronized” Internet and social media events designed to accompany and enhance the airing of their programs. (We are also increasingly willing to pay for subscriber and on-demand television content, according to Ericsson’s press release.)

The prevalence of social media’s influence is felt powerfully in this election year. Richard Dunham reports that more tweets were sent during the first two days of the Republican convention than were sent during the entire 2008 campaign. “A decade ago,” writes Dunham, “social media sites such as Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr and Pinterest didn’t even exist. Now campaigns hire teams of experts to harness the power of social media to connect with supporters, drive their message, tap into like-minded communities and mobilize turnout.”

Dunham goes on to point out that Barack Obama had a tremendous social-media advantage over John McCain in the last election. While both candidates have used sites like Facebook and Twitter to garner support and mobilize voting efforts during this campaign – Romney’s operation was boosted online by unfavorable reaction to the Supreme Court’s ruling on Obamacare, for example – both have also faced allegations that some or many of their followers are fictitious. Newt Gingrich famously touted his large Twitter following during his run for the Republican nomination, only to look foolish when it was revealed that many of those supporters were dummy accounts (presumably purchased for social leverage).

When the same suspicion fell on Romney, it looked as if the Republican nominee was repeating a mistake he should have known to avoid – but this news was eclipsed by the shocking revelation that more than half of Obama’s Twitter followers are fakes. Predictably, as Romney gains online against our technological dictator, Barack Hussein Obama’s sympathizers in the media are claiming all social media is now part of “political theater” (and that this theater should be ignored if it does not show Obama in a commanding lead). The fact is, at least online, the voters prefer Romney – if only because Obama’s largely unemployed voter base is too busy looking up porn on public library computers to be bothered tweeting about the election.

So entrenched is social media in our political system, in fact, that the U.S. State Department is now considering using it to police the world for arms. Popular Mechanics (which, granted, is not known for the accuracy of its technological predictions) reports that our government “is now banking on the possibility that the rise of social media may offer a new means of monitoring for arms-control violations. Imagine an army of sensors made up of ordinary citizens willing, in theory, to keep their governments in check and prove they aren’t violating arms-control treaties.” Entrants to a State Department contest (created accordingly) hope to win a $10,000 prize for coming up with some social-media application that can help the world’s policemen spot arms-control violators and their weapons of mass destruction. Whether this idea is brilliant or absurd seems to hinge on whether you think a blog post can stop a dictator from stockpiling nerve gas.

All this comes amidst equally predictable hand-wringing that social media is making us “crueler” or “meaner.” When micro-blogging and checking in and playing useless Facebook games aren’t prompting semi-anonymous and safely removed users to comment rudely on things they know little about, our websites and apps apparently are wreaking havoc with our justice system by “giving jurors a new way to misbehave.” Alison Grant writes, “At least 90 verdicts were subject to challenge from 1999 to 2010 because of alleged Internet-related juror misconduct, a 2010 Reuters Legal survey found. More than half the cited cases occurred in 2009 and 2010. Judges granted new trials or overturned verdicts in 28 of the criminal and civil cases, the study said.”

The subtext of all this is that the Internet, and the ways we interact through it, are somehow uniquely to blame. Have we forgotten that there is a human being on each end of every data transfer? A comment made and read implies – no, requires – a reader to perceive it. Data transferred must travel from someone and to someone else, even if indirectly. So why do we behave as if social media is an unstoppable, malevolent force that bullies us into submission? Why do we let Facebook posts anger us? Why do we lose friends over Twitter disagreements? And does the Web truly dictate who wins elections? (Hint: No.)

You, the human being in the equation, have the power to ignore extraneous data. You can refuse to rise to bait; you can remain calm in the face of troubling news; you can post with discretion or not at all. The Internet, and social media, have no control over you that you do not grant them. Too few people grasp this … and they suffer all too publicly for this lapse.

Grow up or get off social media. You’ve been warned.