Recusing Ourselves To Death: Social Media’s Silent Majority Is Damaging Our Democracy

“Aldous Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism… the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance… we would become a trivial culture… As he remarked in Brave New World Revisited, the civil libertarians and rationalists…failed to take into account man’s almost infinite appetite for distractions.’

– Neil Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death, 1985

Every morning when I get to work, I have an email waiting in my inbox with the subject line “10 Things You Need to Know Today.” The daily e-newsletter amounts to a condensed sampling of stories from a variety of reputable news sources: Associated Press, The Wall Street Journal, etc. Coffee in hand, it is among the first items I read and, depending on whether I click through to read a few full stories from their respective source sites, the process takes between five and 10 minutes.

I don’t need to know these things, of course. Comparably – at least in terms of direct personal impact – tending to the litany of other emails from colleagues and clients labeled “urgent” is more immediately necessary than an overview of what’s going on in the world. Politics and foreign affairs can wait for my involvement; that document requiring mid-morning turnaround seemingly cannot. Regardless, I take the five or 10 minutes. Consider it part of my commute.

This is because, despite their immediate non-necessity, I really should know these things. For reasons both civic-minded and self-serving, it’s in my best interest to have at least a basic understanding of what Congress is (or isn’t) working on, what progress (or lack thereof) is being made in foreign affairs, and what other major events or trends may be coming to light. As a taxpayer, I want to know where the chunk deducted from my paycheck is going; and as an everyday colleague, family member or friend, I want to participate in topical discussions rather than avoiding them for lack of background.

I also think that, for a democracy to function effectively, a reasonable percentage of its citizens must be at least somewhat familiar with current issues and events. Sadly – and pathetically, considering the minimal effort required – in my experience most people do not meet this basic level of topical literacy.

To clarify, this indictment is not referring to the maelstrom of political propaganda masquerading as news. This isn’t about the legions of FOX News and MSNBC viewers loudly espousing their wholly biased – and therefore factually incomplete – views on Facebook and Twitter. It’s not about Drudge Report readers vs. Huffington Post followers because, for better or worse, at least both sides are paying attention.

Rather, this assessment is being passed on our modern-day Silent Majority, the folks who either don’t know much more than the bare, self-serving essentials necessary to navigate their everyday lives, or who do know more but simply refuse to reveal this wisdom.

Undoubtedly, this Silent Majority existed prior to the advent of social media. However, the proliferation and pervasion of Facebook, Twitter and other cyber-community platforms into our everyday lives has placed this signature silence on display at a level Neil Postman could only have imagined in his prophetically famous 1985 book, Amusing Ourselves to Death. In providing us newfound, limitless opportunities to start or participate in meaningful dialogue, social media has made this silence more deafening: a void that waits in perpetuity to be filled remains nearly empty nonetheless.

In its place is a willful avoidance of actual substantive news, exemplified by topicality’s sad substitutes: mindless memes, silly clickbait listicles, celebrity gossip.

This is not your father’s dependable, Nixonian Silent Majority, but rather an unknowing coalition of two main groups: the Know-Nothings and the Say-Nothings. The former recuse themselves from meaningful civic dialogue for lack of facts; the latter do so for lack of fortitude. And combined, their lack of participation does a grave disservice to our democracy.

The Know-Nothings are a frustrating lot, especially because very few deserve a pass for being truly, debilitatingly unintelligent. A quick litmus test: A recent poll revealed that Hillary Clinton – a woman who has been on the national stage for nearly a quarter-century – has a familiarity rating of 89%. Considering this, let’s estimate that a mere 11% of the populace is simply too braindead to stay topical. Call it the “Heard of Hillary” curve.

For us remaining 89%ers, it doesn’t take a MENSA member to remain reasonably abreast of current events. We enjoy unprecedented, instantaneous access to information, and can even arrange for this news – as I do – to be delivered daily right into our email inboxes. Topicality is right at our fingertips.

This near-universal availability flies in the face of a harsh reality, one showcased through blank-staring colleagues, topic-changing friends and meme-sharing avatars: far too many otherwise capable people are woefully unaware of meaningful current news. If 89% aren’t complete idiots (“Hillary? Yep, heard of her!”), and an even higher percentage has the Internet literally in their pockets, the concept of can’t simply doesn’t hold water. This leaves the more blameworthy condition of won’t.

Know-Nothings, then, willingly choose to remain ignorant about the world around them. Many justify this by diving into a few key interests, using the same technologies capable of directly delivering meaningful news to instead provide limitless updates on the latest YouTube sensation, fantasy football statistic or pending superhero movie.

Know-Nothings aren’t supplementing actual news with their hobbies, but rather supplanting it altogether. Who’s playing Batman in what must be the series’ 16th reboot might be news to them, but it isn’t news; social media both helps enable this educational exile and, for the Know-Nothings’ Facebook friends and Twitter followers, places it on full display. Their role in the Silent Majority is simple: you can’t share what you don’t know in the first place.

Say-Nothings, meanwhile, have the who’s, what’s, where’s and why’s. They just don’t have the will. They’ve heard cautionary tales of college students ruining future career prospects with the wrong Instagram photo, or established professionals losing their jobs for controversial online comments. As an overreaction, they have completely whitewashed their Facebook walls, carrying the politically neutral, risk-averse mannerisms suitable for office settings into the social media space.

As a result, Say-Nothings are cyber-safe to a very boring fault, hiding their true thoughts – about politics, about current events, about their perspectives – behind banal photos, self-important “what I’m doing right now” updates and, perhaps worst of all, inspirational eCards. This sect of the Silent Majority is well aware of the ridiculous, often factless rants of far-leftists and right-wingers. Their refusal to balance extremism with reason is based solely on paranoid self-preservation.

Though seemingly innocuous, this masked retreat from participation only compounds our national dialogue’s shortcomings. Instead of espousing facts and common sense, Say-Nothings respond to toxic bias with sterile passivity; neither conditions support an adequately informed society.

Unfortunately, the immediate cultural forecast calls for more of the same. As Millennials continue to come of age and join Gen Xers at the adult table, they bring a history of obtaining the bulk of their daily news from the aforementioned substance-deficient social media forums, as well as surface-level, sensationalist websites predicated on virality. As a result, they tend to know very little about a very lot.  The Millennials’ perceived lack of substance is at best exacerbated – and at worst almost entirely shaped – by the superficial, faux-informative New Media culture on which they were weaned.

In the short run it is, perhaps, personally convenient and professionally prudent to continue washing our hands of all this by largely ceding the social media dialogue – political and otherwise – to extremists, loudmouths and conspiracy theorists. However, social media is barely a decade old and, for those of you still following the news, here’s a newsflash: it’s not going away, and its influence over public dialogue – and, therefore, public practices and policies – is only going to increase.

Considering this, the sad state of social media shows that silence is anything but golden. Through uncaring complacency and unnecessary reservations, the Silent Majority is forfeiting influence that can only be won by joining the greater conversation. It’s time to start drowning out nonsense with common sense. TC mark

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