Don’t you long, sometimes, for the days when people would fade in and out of your life naturally, much as the tide ebbs and returns? Social media is blamed for many of the world’s ills, but it’s certainly guilty of relieving us of the last crumbs of our ignorance and innocence and proving, once and for all, that the people you love have the capacity to be absolute, irredeemable, thundering dickheads. If absence makes the heart grow fonder, it could explain why much of the time, digitally at least, we appear to be at each other’s throats. Out of sight, out of mind? If only.
You never forget that first putrid opinion that made you question everything you thought you knew about a dear friend, cast forth unto the internet with the confidence of Oprah giving a Ted Talk. The wealth of information available fools us into thinking we’re well-informed, that only the stuff we know is the right stuff to know and that it must be shared widely, because to not know something, to be in the dark for even a second, is unthinkable. Opinions fan out across social media like spilled wine upon a tabletop. For over a decade, blinking cursors and blank text fields have asked, “What are you thinking?” or “What’s happening?” or, more tantalising, “Say something” – and few of us ever refuse. Not only does this pressure us into giving ourselves away, it exposes us to the responses of others. How many times have your mentions imploded or hitherto innocuous Facebook threads descended into bloodshed? Friends, colleagues, auntie Pam and uncle Richard, even, saying things you never thought they’d say, like they’re opening and closing their mouth but the wrong voice is coming out.
For many of us, our very existence is highly politicised and there are many battlegrounds. But it’s the opinions on civil rights, anti-vaxxing, the culture wars and the ceaseless march of conspiracy theories and fake news that are the most revealing. It’s a shock, then, to see friends and family come out as opponents, their innermost thoughts on display, like entrails on a butcher’s block. Sometimes the loneliness yawns out of these tepid takes, insincere, said with little conviction, nothing more than desperate distress flares pootling pathetically into the sky over an indifferent ocean.
“My dad’s lurch towards conspiracy theories, especially anti-left ones, is totally out of character,” says one woman I know. “Being deliberately provocative has given him an audience; he’s thriving on the attention. He says he likes to stir things up, that it’s not a big deal, but it’s making me see him in a totally different light. When I ask him not to, he tells me he’s being silenced. I give up.”
‘He says he likes to stir things up, that it’s not a big deal, but it’s making me see him in a totally different light’
Many of us will have suspected bad opinions lurking under our aunties’ and uncles’ cheery smiles or have that friend who has a…
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