Back in 2014, Pew Research did a study on what they called "the spiral of silence" in Social Media. While the study was triggered and dealt a lot with the specific hot button issue of the time (Snowden/ NSA), it was an indicator of what was a rapidly increasing occurrence on social media platforms. What the study shows is that people are increasingly silent about things they disagree with, and that this is spilling over from social media into face to face discussions.
Now obviously there are a lot of things that need to be shut down: hate speech, revenge porn, incitement to violence... But the idea that we should be shutting down all discussion and take everything at face value is disturbing, to say the least.
The refusal to engage in meaningful debate, resorting to "everyone knows that" or simply saying "I'm not open to other views" is exactly how we become so polarized, even within our friendships, families, and communities. And while I draw the line at keeping friends who publish racist rants, homophobic insults, or other hate speech, I am generally willing to debate my positions with those who are willing to share and cite credible sources in their argument (credible being peer reviewed, in many cases, or studies that are not funded by the very companies and organizations they support, for example, I would not consider a study on RoundUp by Monsanto to be credible, and I'm willing to debate that issue openly on my page or my blog)
Back in the days of Yahoo!360, and later Multiply (past social media platforms) debates were often lively. People didn't unfriend each-other, and only a few people got really hot under the collar about the discussions (yeah, they unfriended, but it was minor). Back in those days I thought nothing about having 1000 or 2000 followers/friends, and we talked (and sometimes argued) about politics, religion, art, whatever...
Now a'days, people resort to insults and rage over whether or not to install a piece of public art. As a member of the Nextdoor community mentioned in the article on Petaluma 360, I can testify that the argument has gotten more than heated and that civility has totally broken down. Eventually, I stepped out of the discussion for just that reason. What's interesting is that I'm neutral on the topic. While I personally don't care for the aesthetic of the piece (nor do I care much for Dadaism in general), I do understand the value of the piece from an artistic standpoint, and the potential benefits of having such a well known artist's work in the city. To read the discussion, however, is to see that people see it as something that will forever make the city a laughingstock, is a personal insult to "reasonable people" and, in some cases, even some sort of political powerplay to undermine the will of the people. Some even likened it to Nazi propaganda and referred to it as "dehumanizing". BTW, it's a collection of bathtubs on stilts. Hardly what's going to bring down the North Bay.
I see this as a problem. I think there are things we should simply stand in opposition to and recognize there should be no discussion of. I won't debate the idea, for example, that some ethnicities are inferior to others, at least not with individuals who are members of White Supremacist organizations, because they do not want to hear evidence, they want to spout prejudice. I don't think bathtubs on stilts should warrant the same amount of ire.
And I think there's a difference. I think that there are people who do want to have meaningful dialog about all sorts of issues, including political, social and religious issues, but people are so defensive and shut down today that they don't want to hear anything beyond what they've chosen to believe thus far. That the current state of polarization has reached beyond liberal/conservative and people are shutting down, unwilling to hear other views or risk changing their minds on an issue.
Recently I got in a discussion with a woman who stated that liberals were doing themselves a disservice by protesting and caring about so many issues, that we should pick one and stand behind it as a group, because all those issues were dividing us and making us weaker, as opposed to the Right, which had a couple key, solid messages. I disagreed, because I believe that there are many spokes in our umbrella, and that having groups shore up each one strengthens the umbrella as a whole. In the long run, we agreed to disagree on that, but while I do absolutely think that we should continue, each of us, to work with our strengths, that we also need to be mindful that there are other issues as well.
I would not, however, have unfriended this woman had the discussion happened on Facebook, nor do I rule her out as a friend IRL.
When we get together with people we care about, we talk about things we care about. Since we're not all identical people, those may be different things, and we may come to odds over them at times. That doesn't devalue the relationship.
Social media, however, has made that kind of thinking somewhat obsolete. It's for posting funny cat videos, our lunch, and quick posts about outings with the family. Now I do want to see funny cat videos, what you had for lunch, and your vacation stories, but if we're friends, I also want to know about what you are passionate about, what you care about, what you find meaning in. I want us to learn from each other. I want to be introduced to new ideas and experiences. But I do not want you to use the "n- word".
I've stopped keeping pages with thousands of followers. I have, at current count, 25. They are family, and/or people I either consider friends or hope to develop friendships with. They are people with whom I dialog. Before the internet, we had small communities: our church, our neighbors, members of our clubs or organizations, people we got together with in various situations and related to each other on various topics. True, we likely weren't talking to our co-workers about our religion (unless they were members of other circles in our lives) but we weren't shouting on soap boxes to hundreds or thousands, we were relating intimately to a few.
Those near, tight bonds were interconnected with other near, tight bonds, a social web that made for a deeper involvement and, perhaps, more impact than shouting out to hundreds who have no stake in your voice.
Recently someone on my FB list told me she was building a new page, one for people she was closer to, people who didn't silence her, people who didn't use hate speech, people with whom she wanted to keep touch and have meaningful dialog with.
The web allows us to do that, rather locally or across miles.
It may be a better use of social media than to shout into the void, be silenced, or post endless videos of cats playing the piano.