Social media and the terrifying power of anonymity

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Social media is a part of modern life. It has been for a long time now of course, but since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic it’s become an even more ever-present aspect of our culture. People who never had a Facebook page or an Instagram handle had to get one to stay in touch with distant friends and family, and people who were already part of those ecosystems suddenly had to do the majority of their socializing on these large quasi-anonymous platforms. At the surface level, there doesn’t seem to be anything wrong with that. After all, sharing pictures of the family, recipes, and carrying on in conversations about what shows and movies people are watching is all harmless fun. 

But this connection comes at a cost though. While social media allows us to stay in contact with others and meet new people and engage in conversations, it also distances us emotionally and spiritually. Every day social media makes us a little sadder, a little more anxious, and worst of all, a little meaner every day.

Anonymity and distance

In 2002, the BBC ran a special episode of a show called The Experiment. This particular episode, Remote Control, was set up as a kind of candid camera prank show centering on an unknown participant named Chris out for a night at the pub who was surrounded by actors and unaware he was being filmed. But there was a twist – the live studio audience would have the chance to decide what happened to Chris by voting on different options presented by the host. Crucially, the audience members were all given masks to hide their faces while they watched the spectacle and voted on what to subject poor Chris to next.

The show wastes no time establishing a slightly sinister tone as the masked audience members vote to make Chris deal with an angry boyfriend in the bar by falsely accusing him of pinching a woman. The presentation leans into the spectacle like it was a goofy prank, like gluing a quarter to the pavement and the audience goes along. But the scene is actually pretty intimidating, with the angry boyfriend threatening Chris and urging him to "go outside” to settle it. Far beyond what would be considered a good-natured prank. 

His night goes increasingly poorly from there as the audience unfailingly chooses the nastiest options they are presented with. Should Chris be treated to a free pint or be ridiculously overcharged for his drinks? Overcharged. Should he win a free TV, or be accused of shoplifting? Shoplifting. And on and on it goes, as the audience roars with laughter. Up until the final question.

After tormenting this man all night, the final choice posed to the audience is if Chris should win a 10,000 pound cash prize for putting up with all this nonsense, or get kidnapped. Naturally the audience chooses the more sadistic option and just as Chris is about to call his awful night to an end, masked men suddenly emerge from a dark van to accost him. Only things go terribly wrong as a panicked Chris runs from his would-be captors… straight into oncoming traffic. 

His body is flung to the ground, crumpled and not moving. After a shocked collective gasp, a terrible silence falls over the audience. Everyone knows they are responsible. Everyone has a sudden moment of reality that this is actually happening to a real person. No more laughter. 

Thankfully, it is revealed that while Chris had no knowledge of the events or the show as the host promised, this last portion was a bit of trickery on the part of the producers. That wasn’t Chris being hit by a car, but a trained and protected stuntman wearing the same clothes filmed earlier in the day. 

The Experiment in this case was a test of what happens when you combine distance, anonymity, and a mob mentality, with the depressingly predictable results. This was a coup of dramatic flair for the show, but all of these years later we can glean surprising insights from it. After all, what else does social media combine but distance, anonymity (or quasi-anonymity)  and a good helping of mob mentality?

Raised tensions

What we see in The Experiment is a daily reality for anyone on social media. For social media savvy users who want to build their "personal brand” or become e-famous online, the easiest way to generate clicks and follows is to pick a big showy fight with someone, land a devastating insult that will be re-posted, and become a "name” in a particular conversation or topic. These arguments, barbs, and dunks inevitably spiral out to their followers and fans, creating tribes, factions, and disagreements everywhere they land. With such omnipresent negativity, it’s difficult to not fall into the same trap. Even if you’re not responding, just reading this kind of bickering, divisive rhetoric day in and day out has a negative effect on your personality. 

The way social media is structured it is almost guaranteed to generate hostility. It’s a way to connect you to hundreds, even thousands of cardboard cutouts of people. 2D avatars and one-dimensional insights into their lives, personalities, and beliefs. Between the distance of the screen and the fact that you don’t really know most of the people you see online, it becomes easy to forget they are real humans. And with the veil of anonymity if you are posting under a handle or assumed name, it can be tempting for even normally considerate and rational individuals to dish out a quick insult or nasty word you would never say to someone looking you in the eye.

Even in places where you are not anonymous (like if you have a personal Facebook page with your real name) the performative aspect of social media warps our interactions. Because when you have a conversation in Facebook, unless it is in private messages, it is visible to other people and there is an awareness of that. So, an argument you might have with a friend isn’t just an argument, it’s a spectacle. And people naturally become more hostile in front of a crowd, everyone digs their heels in, refusing to admit they could be mistaken – compromise becomes a sign of weakness rather than a preferred outcome. It’s easy for people who can get along in person to become bitter enemies online, a phenomenon that has struck many families through the past two years of pandemic distance. 

This creeping negativity flows through the screen and into your life. It distorts your view of other people and groups, turns relationships into competitions, and worst of all obscures your relationship with the Lord. By making it easier to be mean, judgmental, and two-faced, social media enables all of our worst impulses and none of our better angels. 

What you can do to avoid negativity

Of course the knee-jerk response to all of this is to simply avoid social media, don’t participate. But we live in a technological world. As mentioned earlier, for some people social media is the only way to stay in touch with some friends and relatives. So rather than unhelpfully suggesting you simply delete your accounts, here are a few tips that can help keep your social media life balanced and in proper perspective.

First, identify what you get from social media that is constructive and positive. Do you love seeing new photos of your nieces and nephews? Great, keep those accounts. Enjoy hearing from an old friend every now and then? Sounds great, keep in touch. But are their some accounts that only seem to post terrible news everyday that makes you depressed and spurs arguments and drama? You don’t need to follow them. Clean up your follow list and concentrate on constructive, affirming content.

Limit your social media time. Don’t check in on it constantly throughout the day, that’s a surefire way to make social media seem more important than it is. Instead have a set time you check it (maybe during your lunch break, just after work when you’re winding down), something that gives it structure. Then, set a time limit (no more than an hour) and be strict about it. That way you can keep in touch with the people you care about but won’t be tempted to weigh in on every conversation and piece of news that crosses your feed all day.

Finally, and this one might seem goofy but give it a chance, put a mirror next to your monitor or near wherever you prefer to browse your phone. It sounds silly, but studies have shown that people who see themselves in a mirror are far less likely to break social norms or act selfishly/cruelly. It makes sense, it’s a way of not only reminding your of who you are, but also that we’re never truly alone or anonymous. God is right there with you through every post, tweet, and Instagram, even if nobody else is. 

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