Gerry Bell: Cap the open cesspool of social media

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Each succeeding generation seems to have its own bogeyman, on which all troubles and declining fortunes are blamed. In the `50s and `60s, my father and his pals ranted about FDR and the New Deal: "The history of the decline and fall of the United States will start with Social Security and Franklin Delano Roosevelt, that old horse's a--!" my father said. (He changed his mind when he started receiving Social Security benefits and Medicare coverage - but, whatever.)

In the `70s, Sheriff Ed Earl Dodd, in "The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas," railed against television. "G--d--- television!" he called it. When he was really angry and wanted to curse it, he said, "G--d---G--d--- television!!" - because it shed a spotlight on the loose and casual approach he and others in authority took in overseeing the affairs of the community.

Now our boogeyman is social media. But instead of a mere statute (like Social Security) or one-way communication (like television), we have blanket two-way interactive communication, from all corners of society. And it hasn't been pretty. Social media has, to put it mildly, coarsened public discourse; let slip, not the dogs of war, but the dogs of hatred, racism, sexism, and xenophobia; permitted without restriction lies, disinformation and manipulation of the truth; and laid waste to what used to pass for a straightforward political process.

Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram have not only enabled, they have encouraged the very worst instincts and impulses of the American spirit. (Look no further than the Town of Pownal, or as it's known in my house, Dysfunction Junction.) Facebook is the worst offender. Mark Zuckerberg took the germ of a clever idea and quickly covered it in slime: no restrictions on blatant lies, no boundaries for bullying, insults, and taunts. In his mind, that juicy garbage just means more ad revenue because it appeals to the low taste of an ever-wider audience — whose personal choices and data he can then mine and resell to his advertisers. To Zuckerberg — despite his protests — it isn't about free speech, it's about money. And like many ultra-wealthy entrepreneurs, he doesn't really need more billions, he's just keeping score at society's expense. He's a case study in the corruptive attraction of power, influence, and cash.

Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey has — to his credit — tried to instill some guidelines to ensure truth and accuracy, but face it — he's trying to hold back the tide with a spoon. His Twitter brainchild is a schoolyard insult platform — for bullying, shaming, hate-filled invective, and the like. It's for tiny off-the-rails minds, narcissistic egos, and tiny thumbs. (Yes, you know who I mean.) And Twitter followers would you really want to be identified as "followers" of these creeps?

And Instagram? I don't get that at all. I don't care to see a picture of what JLo and Alex are eating tonight. I'm not interested in the sparrow on your kitchen windowsill. As far as I can tell, a good many people who post on Instagram are delusional, believing that the populous masses actually care. And the people who look at this stuff — well, they really, really, really need something to do

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But what do we do about this? The proposed solutions I've seen seem unworkable. Facebook started a committee of five or six people to "monitor" content — but as a practical matter how do you review and edit or delete billions of posts a day? And the fact is, this does involve free speech — although Zuckerberg abuses the principle almost criminally, who do you trust to regulate the regulators?

Elizabeth Warren's solution is to "break up Facebook." But then, Elizabeth seems to want to break up anything bigger than the corner grocery store. She's a walking solution in search of a problem. Besides, she doesn't have the votes.

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One idea that might have promise is to split social media platforms into sections, within which a subscriber has to self-identify to gain access. Something like the movie rating system: "G" is for pictures of your grandchildren; "PG-13" is pictures of your vacation or Christmas party, replete with alcoholic good cheer; "M" is for more serious posts - condolences, praise for good deeds, support for the basketball team or for the new school. The last category is not NC-17 or MA, because those labels imply some degree of maturity, and that's not happening here. Let's instead call it "URV" — unrestricted vitriol — politics, bullying, shaming, and all the "-isms."

A person would have to self-identify — and have each post, regardless of section, accompanied by his or her self-rating — to be allowed access. So if you wanted to wallow in the gutter, you'd have to say so up front, to all the world.

The trouble is, I think we may be so far gone that the rating classification won't be much of a deterrent. I am afraid that the vast majority of people will gravitate immediately to "URV" and keep on doing what they've been doing, shame be damned.

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Nevertheless, hope springs eternal in this brave little state. There is another possibility, and it came from — of all places — the lips of Nancy Reagan. Just. Say. No. (She was talking about hard drugs; I'm talking about the seductive narcotic of social media.) I said no two years ago — enough of this nonsense. These platforms are an open cesspool, and I'm not interested in them or the people who traffic unrestrained in them.

If you need social contact, phone a friend to whom you haven't spoken in a while. Take your dog for a walk. Volunteer at the local food pantry. Help out at the adaptive skiing center at your local ski hill. There are lots of things to do besides being a toxic shut-in at a keyboard.

I see that I now have some very public company. Stephen King just said no and removed himself from Facebook. I hope you will join us — in the social media world of schoolyard taunts, maybe the old schoolyard truism will come to pass: if you ignore the bully and the narcissitic showoff and the mean girls, they'll either disappear or change their ways.

Let's hope so. I'm sure we are better than this. Let's cap the cesspool of social media and breathe fresh, clean air again. Just say no, and get off these things.

Gerry Bell lives in Shaftsbury.


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