Social media, hashtag era invites simple opinions

“True terror is to wake up one morning and discover that your high school class is running the country,” the late Kurt Vonnegut said.

The Twittersphere and news world erupted after Marco Rubio’s grasp for a drink of water during the Republican response to the State of the Union address. The kind of society that aims the news spotlight at this sort of minutia makes information seeking unsavory. To a journalism student, it’s outright ridiculous.

The boom of technology has solidified our ability to find out everything about anything. Despite this gift, the general public and media often perpetuate an age-old human tendency to simplify, even marginalize complex issues.

Those issues are then expressed as simple soundbites, one-liners, memes, hashtags — or just plain, pithy projections of one’s intelligence.

It takes a few minutes to see the extent of the simplifications: the sensationalism of Marco Rubio’s water moment last week; the reduction of Hillary Clinton’s Benghazi testimony to the hashtag #WhatDifferenceDoesItMake; criticism that Obama dare cry over Sandy Hook deaths, but not for the unknown amount of children dead from his drone strikes — and even Mitt Romney’s infamous 47 percent video.

Except Rubio’s drinking water, each of those mentions have more complexity at stake than a single clip, tweet, meme, or news article could begin to explore. Limiting an understanding and analysis of one of these situations makes oneself a less-informed and assumptive media consumer.

This isn’t a total damnation of Twitter, Facebook, or the Internet as the root of all evil. James Martel, a political science professor at SF State, pointed out there have always been forms of memes and gesture-focused political speech. Prime examples include Civil War propaganda and tabloids from the ‘50s and ‘60s.

“There’s always been an emphasis on style and non-verbal communication,” Martel said. “I don’t think it means people your age are shallow or lack political thought.”

Though digital media are not the root issue, the instant gratification aspect makes digital media a popular vehicle. Its nature to confine an expression to no more than 140 characters or a single frame, enables many who would not normally share an opinion to do so. This melting pot of easy access and boxing-in abbreviated thought often delivers simplified opinions.

The tools for information and knowledge are more abundant now than any other time in human history. Distortion and oversimplification of world and political issues are also just as prevalent.

As we advance alongside our technology, our understanding and opinions of world events should be as informed as our tools allow. Simple and regurgitated opinions are easy to come by and yield easy results. Complex and self-discovered opinions are multilayered and sometimes without finite conclusion, but create a philosophical, critical, and balanced citizen.

It’s that type of citizen that will keep Vonnegut’s fear from becoming reality.

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  • I wanted to leave a one word comment saying “insightful” but realized that would add to the fodder that inspired this article. So I’ll say a bit more, not only did I think that the article showed keen observation but also sound analysis. I appreciated your thesis and identified with it, thanks for the good read!
    -J.C.

  • Interesting how many ways we can look at developments. The simple fact that we are re-learning to have oppinions is one of the positive results of the Social Media revolution