The Morning Jolt


The Dangers of an Increasingly Online World

A young woman having a video conference with her doctor ( gpointstudio/Getty Images)

On the menu today: The COVID-19 pandemic forced Americans to isolate and do more through the Internet than ever before, which may have quite a few ill long-term effects for our society; the need for “resocialization” in 2021; and an update on political races in South Carolina and Louisiana.

Another Bad Pandemic Legacy: Becoming an Even-More-Online Society

Pew found earlier this year that:

As smartphones and other internet-connected devices have become more widespread, 31 percent of U.S. adults now report that they go online “almost constantly,” up from 21 percent in 2015 . . . 85 percent of Americans say they go online on a daily basis. That figure includes the 31 percent who report going online almost constantly, as well as 48 percent who say they go online several times a day and 6 percent who go online about once a day.

There’s a vast difference between interacting online and interacting in person; if there were no difference, the past year wouldn’t have seemed so lonely. Zoom, Skype, Houseparty, texting, emails, and phone calls helped us feel somewhat less isolated, but for most people, all of those combined couldn’t quite make up the difference of all of those canceled face-to-face family gatherings, holidays, parties, conferences, social lunches, happy hours, etc.

Since about March 2020, Americans — and citizens around the world — have been warned that face-to-face interactions with those outside their households might be deadly, or, at minimum, risked making them sick. This led to a lot of well-meaning warnings to keep your distance from others, a lot of wildly hyperbolic demonization of normal human activity — and a lot of public discussion that blurred the lines and offered something in between.

We shifted from in-person schooling to online schooling. We shifted from restaurant meals to take-out. We shifted from movie theaters to streaming services. We shifted from in-person visits with our doctors to telemedicine. Not every aspect of all of these changes is bad! But 2021 needs to be a year of resocialization — not in the sense of reengineering or resetting people’s social values, beliefs, and norms, but in the sense of getting people used to interacting with each other in person again. We’ve lost a year’s worth of reading people’s faces — because they were often covered by masks — and all of the nonverbal cues of body language. We are often unwittingly giving constant feedback to everyone around us with our faces and bodies. (Notice when someone says “absolutely” but shakes their head back and forth, indicating “no.”)

At some point, you’ve probably watched someone behave extraordinarily rudely or flip out in public and shaken your head and concluded, “That person just doesn’t know how to act.” And it may well just be that person’s personality. But I wonder how much off-line obnoxiousness or hostility reflects that people’s sense of how to behave and speak to others is being shaped by online discourse.

Online discourse is almost always coarser, cruder, meaner than off-line discourse. Think about how a volunteer active in politics has to act while door-knocking, manning a booth at a county fair, or phone-banking, compared to the way people talk to each other about politics on social media. If you’re rude, condescending, dismissive, raging, or insulting in real life,  you will repel the people you want to persuade.

While there are exceptions, in most arguments on social media, the default setting is that everyone who disagrees with you is at best an idiot, or more likely, a threat to good people everywhere. Both social media and regular media offer an endless buffet table of examples that the people who think differently than you really are imbecilic, corrupt, malevolent, and a danger to others.

If you’re on the left, and go to a site like Raw Story this morning, you can read headlines such as: “‘Pathetic liar’ Greg Abbott blasted for online misinformation: ‘Take down this lie,’” “‘Sad, pathetic and weak:’ Kevin McCarthy demolished on Morning Joe for his mealy-mouthed defense of Trump,” “‘Fascist’ Ron DeSantis burned to the ground by Florida reporter for his latest Trump-like move.’’ Notice that all of these stories amount to “Someone said something critical about a Republican lawmaker.” (Also, I had missed that last bit of news. Shouldn’t someone be arrested for arson if that headline is true?)

If you’re on the right, you can read this morning that “Ghislaine Maxwell and Jeffrey Epstein were once White House guests of former President Bill Clinton, “Michigan Democrat seen resisting DUI arrest, threatens to call Gov. Whitmer in bodycam footage,” and “Kamala Harris’ office stated ignorance of how volunteers, corporate sponsors chose her book for migrant kids.” There is always some new story to reassure you that the other side is irredeemably evil, and there’s no point in even trying to engage with them. After all, there’s a cultural war going on, or so we’re often told, not a mere cultural disagreement. A lot of morally debatable acts are justified in war that would not be justified in other circumstances.

A lot of social-media algorithms are meant to promote posts with the highest level of “interactivity” — with no ability or desire to assess whether that interactivity is good or bad. Noncontroversial views do not generate interactivity; controversial ones do — which means that many social-media platforms inadvertently or deliberately set up a system that gives the biggest platform and widest audience to the most controversial and extreme viewpoints.

Earlier this year, the Anti-Defamation League examined extremist and white-supremacist content on YouTube:

Moreover, despite recent changes to the YouTube algorithm, the site still frequently recommends videos from alternative or extremist channels when people watch a video from those channels. As a result, many racially resentful people are not only watching large numbers of videos from alternative or extremist channels, but also are shown recommendations for more such videos when they do so, further increasing exposure to potentially harmful content. . . .

. . . the financial incentives that YouTube provides based on viewership and watch time may encourage creators to appeal to people with extreme views and provoke controversy. Third, YouTube’s algorithm makes recommendations based in part on past user behavior.6 These recommendations can influence user behavior, especially because the top recommendation is played after the current video concludes by default.

Last week, in his vastly underrated newsletter, The Monday Notice, Jay Caruso wrote: “A lot of people are lonely and struggling to deal with [the pandemic and its restrictions]. Drug overdoses are increasing. People are spending way too much time indoors on their phones and their computers, and many of them are going down rabbit holes of misinformation and radicalism. We cannot maintain this madness throughout the summer and into the fall.”

This sort of thing is tough to measure, but anecdotal evidence is piling up:

Isolation and excessive screen time during the past year created opportunities for QAnon and other extremist groups to lure in more people, according to educators.

“QAnon really went after a wide range of people. They did something very clever, what they did last summer is they basically hijacked the save the children movement in order to attract people who might otherwise not be drawn in,” said Jessica Stern, Boston University professor.

“I think that definitely played a role,” Phoebe Keliikupakako a junior at Boston University, said. “I think if I wasn’t on my phone constantly, I wouldn’t have seen stuff like that.”

The shift to a more online-focused society is all around us; we see it in the very architecture. Do you see newspaper-vending machines on street corners as much as you used to? I’m betting not. Phone booths are much rarer, if not extinct. Video stores are long gone, and people purchase considerably fewer physical copies of music, movies, television shows, and video games less than in the past. Tangible media is a smaller and smaller portion of your “big box” stores. Camera stores and film development are almost entirely gone.

I spend a lot of time online as part of my job, but I know it’s not particularly healthy for me. Readership is fundamental to the institution I write for, and so it would be an argument against interest for me to tell you to put your phone down or step away from the computer and go for a walk, and/or interact with someone face to face. But it is important for us to live full, well-rounded lives, and arguing with people online is probably not the most fulfilling way to spend our time.

Now if you’ll excuse me, someone I’ve never met on Twitter is wrong and I need to show them the error of their ways.

Meanwhile, Down in South Carolina . . .

Former Democratic congressman Joe Cunningham is running for governor of South Carolina, challenging incumbent Republican Henry McMaster. The state’s Democrats shouldn’t get their hopes up. Cunningham won 50.6 percent in South Carolina’s first district in 2018, a terrific year for Democrats nationally, when the district’s Republican vote was split, with a small but decisive number of frustrated supporters of primary-defeated Mark Sanford either staying home or voting for the Democrat. In 2020, Cunningham narrowly lost to Republican Nancy Mace, garnering 49.3 percent and trailing by about 6,000 votes. You figure a rematch for the congressional seat would have been lower-hanging fruit than running statewide against an incumbent.

Meanwhile, Down in Louisiana . . .

Our John Fund notes that the special election for a House seat in a heavily black Louisiana district was won this weekend by state senator Troy Carter, the ‘moderate’ in the runoff. Carter’s opponent, Karen Carter Peterson, “a former vice-chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee, had all the left-wing firepower you could want in the race. Peterson was endorsed by Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, self-proclaimed voting-rights leader Stacey Abrams, Elizabeth Warren, the pro-abortion group Emily’s List, the Black Lives Matter PAC, and the Congressional Progressive Caucus. Emily’s List alone poured $1.2 million in ads into the race.”

Honestly, it wasn’t that close, about 55 percent to 44 percent.

ADDENDUM: The website TechPresident kindly puts National Review and the Morning Jolt newsletter at the top of its list Best Research-Based Conservative News Sites in 2021. I know nothing about the site, but if it likes this newsletter, it can’t be that bad, now, can it?


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