Wednesday, March 17, 2021

40. Social Media Has No Inherent Power

“Freedom threatens to degenerate into mere license and arbitrariness unless it is lived in terms of
responsibleness.” - Viktor Frankl 

Earlier in January I was watching a feature on CNN about the victories in the Georgia runoffs, followed immediately by the terrorist insurrections on the U.S. State Capitol.  The pundits were dissecting how the violence came to pass, as one pundit stated, “Twitter just has too much power over people.”  This seems to have the cause and effect exactly backward. 

Twitter itself doesn’t have power.  The people who consume its services have power.  They are responsible for using it, sharing it, enjoying it, and inflating it.  A social media outlet can only have as much influence as its customers allow.  If you don’t believe me, try catching up with your buddies on Friendster today.   

I was late to the Internet.  I had no way of connecting to the world wide web until 1998, and even then it was only accessible through a job (sorry, United Health Care).  I spent those early days surfing discussions on soap opera message boards. I was thrilled at the idea of having meaningful conversations and exchanges with other soap viewers around the world.  But I saw right away that threads would quickly devolve into arguments, misunderstandings, and name calling.  From the brainwashing of Hope/Gina on Days Of Our Lives, to the endless Robin vs. Carly debates on General Hospital, to the dissecting of Reva’s clone on Guiding Light, the internet was fired up with opinions and angry battles.  I remember commenting, “This internet thing may work out if people stop expressing their repressed anger against each other.” 

I was pulled into social media kicking and screaming but eventually gave in and created a MySpace account in 2008.  Lo and behold, at age thirty-seven I found myself beginning to enjoy interesting, albeit limited conversations and exchanges with people around the world and thinking, “This is really fun.”  So when Facebook became the Next Big Thing, I thought, “Wow, an unlimited space to have conversations with people from all over the world, and catch up with people I’ve lost touch with.  What could go wrong?”

Initially very little.  In 2008, Facebook was still a space that most people were utilizing to find missing friends, make new contacts, keep up with family members, share shirtless photos, and genuinely engage in positive interactions with others around the world.   By 2012 it seemed the teeth were out, the knives were sharp, and conversations frequently degenerated into critique and nastiness? Why?  I believe that technology outpaced human consciousness, ie, the interest in thinking about what you're thinking about.  Or, to put it another way, most humans are thinking from the ego (or fear-based) mindset at most times.  If we’re not actively aware of this, we will bring attack into the electronic space and amplify critique, judgement, and assaults.   Before the Internet this used to be done through editorials, telephone calls, or handwritten letters.  Social media allows people to instantly articulate and exacerbate ego-based thinking , thereby resulting in a constant stream of hostility, aggression, disconnection, and ultimately loneliness. 

Underneath all the conflict is a great desire to connect with other humans, feel seen and acknowledged, and experience a sense of belonging.  This is why these platforms resonate so strongly, this is why people spend hours and hours online every day engaging on them.  But when people use their typed words to dehumanize others, constantly scan for fault, and seek connection by focusing on who said something “wrong,” then it ultimately leads to an experience of alienation.  Or to paraphrase Viktor Frankl, freedom to express yourself on social media without responsibility or mindfulness quickly degenerates into arbitrariness.

What’s the answer? Intentionality.  Facebook and other platforms follow the basic laws of cosmic energy:  What you focus on increases.  If you go to social media focused on the idea that the world is a mean place, that humans are horrible, and you must attack those who you disagree with, then you will confirm that bias.  If you use social media to consistently whine and complain, then you will live in that reality and you will experience the strain emotionally.  But if you intentionally use social media to expand compassion, respect, and support others, then you will live in the joy of that truth as well.

By June of 2013 I had personally been using PrEP to prevent HIV for nearly two years.  Despite the FDA's approval, very few gay/bisexual men at risk for HIV had any idea PrEP existed.  There was no advertising by the manufacturer, no campaigns by medical agencies, and minimal coverage in the media.  HIV rates were still trending upward, especially in communities of color.  I was infuriated by the lack of response to PrEP until I realized it's not the 90s anymore - you don't need an organization and a budget to get the message out.   I took the responsibility to create a Facebook group that would prioritize facts, science, evidence, data, about PrEP, as well as administer global discussions based in humanity, respect, sex-affirmative support.  I moderated these threads in PrEP Facts: Rethinking HIV Prevention and Sex every day and night until August, 2020.  I can't say it was always successful, but I can say it gave me a profound respect for how social media can be used intentionally to create community, facilitate education, increase access, and enable sexual empowerment. 

If you decide ahead of time to be loving, kind, and treat others with compassion and understanding, then social media will amplify that decision.  Most of what appears in my newsfeed on Facebook are friends posting about triumphs, struggles, victories, celebrations.  While I'm writing this I’m seeing people getting vaccinated from COVID19, reuniting with parents they haven’t seen in a year, loving their dogs and cats, getting new jobs, raising money for worthy causes, (and luckily still sharing those shirtless pics).  My newsfeed is a reflection of the posts I regularly “like” or “love”:  Friends and family overcoming obstacles and finding meaning and resilience in their lives. 

It is your responsibility to determine your experience on social media, not the CEOs in Silicon Valley.   If you don’t enjoy social media, then you can decide not to consume it.  If you don’t derive joy or pleasure from spending time on social media, then you can decide not to waste it.  If you don’t like what someone else is saying or doing, then you can decide not to enable or inflate them by giving them more attention and clicks.

Social media doesn’t have the power.  You have the power.  I have the power.  Any person with a brain and a wifi connection has the power.  We can use that power to expand pain, lies, and cruelty.  Or we can all use that power responsibly and intentionally to enhance compassion, facts, connection, and fun. 

At fifty years old, I’m clear on how I'm going to responsibly enjoy my electronic freedom.  Are you?

Visit the PrEP Facts group 24/7 here.

Damon L. Jacobs is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist helping individuals and couples enjoy life with peace, purpose, and pleasure. His books "Absolutely Should-less" and "Rational Relating" help people experience connection with joy, serenity, and meaning. His work has been featured on CNN Health, The New York Times, MSNBC, USA Today and more. He can be reached at or 347-227-7707.

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