Maria Gutzeit | Is Social Media Leading Us to Civil War?


Civil war. That’s what one tech industry executive said he fears most, if we don’t curtail our social media habit. This was in the documentary “Social Dilemma” available on Netflix. 

As of last year, 72% of U.S. adults used social media regularly. Facebook is the most popular, and 74% of its users log on daily. From civil war down to a lack of tolerance, the movie concludes social media has set us on a bad path. 

I agree.

The scariest part of the film “Social Dilemma” was the explanation of the algorithms designed to keep you coming back. 

Essentially, the system can tell what posts you engage the most with…. reading or watching the longest. And it feeds you more of that and less of other things. 

This is all done without human oversight. 

What gets you amped up on social media? Often it’s something just a little more inflammatory, a little more over the top, than, say, a measured news article that lists pros and cons on both sides. You read those “more exciting” things and you get more of them fed to you.

Another good tidbit from the film was the answer to the question, “How do those people believe all that silly stuff?” 

Whether about Donald Trump or Hilary Clinton or Pizza gate or the WhatsApp scandals that led to murders of innocent people, fake news comes to those who consume it, and crowds out anything less exciting, i.e. more reality-based.  

Social media trails only our local newspaper, The Signal, as being cited as a source of information in professional surveys done locally. Can you imagine what happens in areas that do not have local news coverage? That is how “those people” believe “all that silly stuff.” 

One-sided information is all the vast majority of people see. That is not good for our world.

Government action and overall progress requires cooperation from many different interest groups for anything to succeed.

Gov. Gavin Newsom recently announced his goal of ending the sale of fossil-fuel-powered cars in California by 2035. In the face of climate change, stretch goals like this are important. 

However, to have a hope of success, goals need to have buy-in from other people. Within days of the announcement, a Latino group took out a full-page ad in the Los Angeles Times saying the measure would adversely affect low-income and agricultural workers.  

There’s talk of electrifying our home appliances, too. More costs for people barely making it. Our power grid and power supply seem to be right on the edge now, and curtailments like we saw in the last heat wave are expected to happen more often. 

That, too, has to be fixed if we need to rely even more on electricity. These are discussion points that need to be resolved, yet the battles of social media leave out anything but black and white. 

The question really isn’t “do you believe in climate change?” 

The bigger question is, can we work together to fix things?

What is equally important is recognizing that China produces double the greenhouse gases that the United States does, and their air pollution even reaches the West Coast of the U.S. India is just behind the U.S. 

On a per-capita basis, countries such as Kuwait, Belize, Australia, Libya and even Luxembourg produced more greenhouse gas than the United States as of 2013 (more updated accounting is supposed to start in 2024). I certainly hope sharing and funding efficiencies in other countries is on the table as well. 

As much as we like to start at home, tackling the big problems on a worldwide scale is going to help us more than making a farm worker change out their natural gas clothes dryer. This is but one action item in a sea of many that our leaders need to tackle. The solutions are not binary nor are they simple.

Social media essentially makes us decide, with our attention, what is important and what is correct. It does this by feeding us biased information, all day long. This lessens our ability and our understanding of how complex problems are, making us intolerant and cranky when it seems nothing is improving. 

In reality, many smart people are working every day to make things better. I’d like to hear more about that and less about fighting over every topic. The real world isn’t social media, but we seem to forget that a little too much lately, at our peril.

Maria Gutzeit is a chemical engineer, business owner, elected official, and mom living in Santa Clarita. “Democratic Voices” appears Tuesdays and rotates among local Democrats.

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