Has Social Media Become the Modern-Day ‘Full Moon Effect’?

For centuries, scientists and theorists of a great many fields have studied, debated, and thought long and hard about the phenomenon of a full moon and its relationship to a seemingly strong increase in odd behavior among many people.

There are several complex ideas that suggest some strange, intrinsic power or energy the moon might have upon some members of society. There are also a few much-less complicated theories as to why some people do highly unusual things when the evening sky is adorned by a full moon and most of these perspectives center around the full moon providing more light—simply making the odd behavior much easier to see by more people.

Similarly, social media outlets have provided an ever-growing array of choices for people to be completely free with their thoughts and ideas, opinions and positions on an endless list of subjects. But just as social media has grown, so too has the integration of the commentaries sections of news and blog sites, where a single article of one form or another offers the opportunity for comments from around the world.

While some of the discourse and debate is contributed in a genuine form of sharing ideas and beliefs—in processes that include actually speaking and listening—it seems more often the comments are derisive, derogatory and in some of the worst cases, devastating, to the principals of the story.  It is at times disgusting as well as terrifying that some comments appear as they do, from people who are immediately identified and memorialized by their name and picture.

Thankfully, the ugliest of these exchanges often remain largely limited to their original social media and reader commentary sites. But in those cases in which these open arguments extend to other online media, we learn that the individuals involved seem to have otherwise socially-appropriate positions and activities in life. They are often professionals; they have families, and they make much more information about themselves widely available. It would seem so clear for any of us that using hurtful and harmful terms, often with threatening and inciteful language, would not be something we would do even in the most heated of discussions with total strangers.

But in social media, the standard all too often is one of being, well, anti-social.

I don’t choose that term in a cavalier manner.  For it seems to me that many people who post such aggressive terms and thoughts are quite intentional about their desire to be anti-social; they seemingly have little regard for what damaging outcomes or negative effects their words, pictures, or symbols may cause, and they also seem quite oblivious to the very real fact that these actions are forever memorialized by the internet, with full attribute to them.

These commentaries are seen by so many more because of the venues in which they are contributed, and when they become cross-referenced as part of a multiple-media post. Where a letter to the editor of a local newspaper twenty or thirty years ago might be retrievable by today’s online search engines, anything placed into a blog, comments section, or as part of a personal post to an individual’s personal webpage, it is immediately broadcast not only by the author, but in a great many cases, several more times by those who are incited or angered by those who read these opinions.

What can be done to restore some of the common decencies that we need badly need online? First, I would offer that censorship, even in the pursuit of decorum and decency is not the answer. It will further suppress the very conversations we need and will likely exacerbate the very problem we share. I have long said that dissent is much more valuable to us all than agreement, for it will always provide us the higher level of understanding and the knowledge to make more informed decisions. For this to occur, we must be willing to model and expect a renewed level of dialog, and, we must be willing to allow our beliefs to be challenged and on occasion, be amended.

There are many ways in which free speech can be described to someone new to a democracy, but few are as effective as this: Free speech is not free. A price was paid to have it, and a price must be paid to use it.

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