One of the reasons I enjoy teaching literature is its perpetual relevance. Such is the case with Stephen Vincent Benét’s “By the Waters of Babylon,” published in 1937.
Set in post-apocalyptic New York City, the narrator — a member of a primeval tribe of survivors — discovers the truth behind the mystical “Place of the Gods.” In short, New York City was not some holy or forbidden land, as the tribe had believed. Instead, the city and its inhabitants were victims of “fire falling out of the sky and a mist that poisoned.”
The story reminds us of the duality of technology, no matter the time period. As the late media guru Neil Postman explained, “Technology giveth and technology taketh away, and not always in equal measure. A new technology sometimes creates more than it destroys. Sometimes, it destroys more than it creates. But it is never one-sided.”
In the case of Benét’s story, the technology of nuclear warfare reveals a new “truth” that is a “hard deer to hunt. If you eat too much truth at once, you may die of the truth.” Thus, it is “better the truth should come little by little,” says the narrator. “Perhaps, in the old days, they ate knowledge too fast.”
Eating knowledge too fast. Is that what’s happening with today’s technology? Is our ability to control the very technology we create escaping our grasp? It sometimes seems so, at least when it comes to social media. Next week’s elections underscore this point.
New Britain’s incumbent Mayor Erin Stewart “was insulted by Bruce Rubenstein, a former state Democratic leader and appointed official in Hartford, who wrote that Stewart needs to lose weight and ‘go easy on the pasta’ beneath a Facebook notice of her campaign’s pasta fundraiser,” according to a Hartford Courant story. One week prior, a Democratic council candidate in New Britain also came under fire for comments he made criticizing Stewart’s appearance related to the same pasta fundraiser.
A commenter on the state GOP Facebook page, meanwhile, wrote that he would shoot Senator Cathy Osten of Sprague, who is running for re-election as First Selectman. Another commenter accused Osten of driving on his lawn, warning that if he had caught her, “I would have pulled her out that car and knocked her out.”
Civility, clearly, is one casualty of the social-media age as platforms create accessible and often anonymous bullhorns. Facts are another, as lies are spread faster than truth on social media. But if you’re hoping Facebook or Twitter will fix the problem — that is, offer a technological solution to a technological problem — don’t hold your breath. Just look at their new “free speech policy.”
“Over the past week, Facebook and Twitter have codified a dual-class system for free speech: one set of rules for politicians or ‘world leaders,’ another for the rest of us,” reports Axios. “Facebook’s policy lets politicians make just about any claim they want, in ads or posts, including repeating verbatim a false claim that has already been labeled elsewhere as false. That means they can misstate their own record or that of an opponent.”
At least Facebook appears more vigilant when it comes to removing fake posts originating outside the United States.
“Facebook announced [Oct. 21] that it took down a network of Russian-backed accounts that were posing as American voters in swing states,” reported the Washington Post. “The social media company said the operation appeared well-resourced, reflected a sophisticated understanding of the culture wars that divide Americans, and bore all the hallmarks of the Internet Research Agency, the Kremlin-backed troll farm that interfered in the 2016 presidential election.”
Still, social-media monitoring is an exercise in futility since bogus material will always remain a staple of political posts. And the irony is that social media’s influence is extremely out of proportion with the general public. A Pew Research Center analysis found that only 22% of the American public uses Twitter. What’s more, “97% of tweets from U.S. adults that mentioned national politics over the study period came from just 10% of users.”
In the end, the best antidote for this social-media malaise is individual responsibility, critical thinking, and media literacy. Fake news, propaganda, and blatant nonsense is all detectable if people care enough to detect it. It’s a song I’ve been singing for a long time now, but it’s probably the only thing that will ultimately save us from social media’s destructive capabilities.
I certainly wouldn’t trust the tech giants of Silicon Valley to rescue us because, as Stephen Vincent Benét might write, the Facebooks and Twitters of the world are only interested in feeding us material faster than we can digest it.
It’s time to go on a diet.
Barth Keck is an English teacher and assistant football coach who teaches courses in journalism, media literacy, and AP English Language & Composition at Haddam-Killingworth High School.
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