When speaking about social media, reactions tend to vary from the self-aggrandizing, noxious fumes spouted by influencers bragging on the recent likes garnered by their goat yoga pictures to the reactions of social media aesthetics, self-proclaimed exemplars of moral fortitude reminding you that social media is toxic. Then, there’s the social media middle ground, or the vast majority of people who have accounts because of networking benefits or because they just like sharing videos from that one account with the kittens frightened by cucumbers.
Although unbearable, the holier than thou social media forgoers make valid points from time to time. Elsewhere, I’ve written about how social media lends itself to the widespread propagation of misinformation, especially when it comes to politics. But what makes this such a dangerous phenomenon is the fact that no one really seems sure about how to handle it.
"It's hard to cite facts or create an argument in 140 characters,” novelist Jonathan Franzen said of Twitter in a 2012 speech at Tulane University. “It's the ultimate irresponsible medium.” And Franzen is right — at least, in part. Twitter users don’t always care so much about facts as they do about filling the space provided with egoistic nonsense in the hopes that their opinions will be noticed, commended and perhaps even given a much lauded position on the site’s “trending” page.
You might ask what the difference is between a Twitter user’s bid for an ego boost and my own, in having written this opinion column. The difference, and I believe Franzen would agree on this point, is the medium. Franzen went on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert in 2015, and Colbert asked him about his disdain for Twitter. “It’s hard to create a sentence that uses the word ‘although’ in it in 140 characters,” Franzen said. Of course, Franzen was being hyperbolic, but he was making a point about nuance. Not every Twitter user is so keen on spending time fleshing out opinions in a multi-tweet thread, with adequate links to each source.
An unfortunate example of social media’s negligent use came to public attention after the Notre Dame Cathedral Fire in Paris. On April 15, after various videos and accounts of the 850-year-old cathedral burning surfaced online and in the media, people on the internet began to conjecture about the source of the fire with the tenacity of Alex Jones at an Apollo 11 convention. Social media was flooded with bigoted conspiracies about the fire, with posters claiming it was an act of arson started by Islamic extremists or anti-Catholic terrorists.
The sheer fact that these claims were a possibility at the time should not have been enough to justify their public avowal. In other words, these claims were irresponsible and, worse, likely bids to incite turmoil. Even Fox News anchors deemed these right-wing conspiracies as beneath the level of justifiable news. Fox anchors Shepard Smith and Neil Cavuto were both forced to cut-off guest commenters, who started to speak on their theories without evidence. Whereas media sources are regulated by editors or news anchors, social media doesn’t benefit from such arbiters. Conspiracy theories and hateful attacks were allowed to flourish on social media, with little to no regulation besides that of the users themselves.
In 2015, when Colbert asked Franzen to elaborate on his opinions, the writer noted that it’s not as if he’s trying to “disinvent Twitter.” Basically, social media is the guy at a party who some people see as an obnoxious distraction while others find him fun. If he breaks a couple things in the process, that’s just part of the fun. Like him or hate him, he’s here to stay. It falls on the people who see the destruction this guy can cause to curb the damage, maybe follow him around with a dustpan or maybe lock him in the coatroom when he gets too wild.
It’s not about whether social media lends itself to irresponsibility. Cars lend themselves to irresponsibility as well, but we don’t try to ban car usage. We set rules and road regulations to increase safety. Barring adequate social media regulation, it falls on the users to ensure the medium’s responsible use. The more responsible users ready to decry misinformation as a harm to society, the better.
We’ve reached a point where the irresponsible ones are those who see the damage social media can cause and elect to do nothing about it, whether that means not speaking out or forgoing these mediums altogether. The only way to fight against irresponsibility is to familiarize ourselves with the irresponsible.
Michael Frank is a 23-year-old political science and English senior from New Orleans, Louisiana.