Social Media, Civility, and Intelligence

Do social media make us wiser or dumber? That depends on our choices

Fresno Bee, September 15, 2017

Is the world getting dumber? Twitter co-founder Evan Williams thinks so. In commenting on Twitter’s role in electing Donald Trump, Williams said people are isolated and narrow-minded in their consumption of news. He said the whole “media eco-system” is “making us dumber.”

Of course, stupidity has always been with us. Ignorance is the birthright of every generation. But Twitter has a unique role in fueling the comedy of errors – the “covfefe” – playing out across our screens.

This week, U.S. Republican Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, or someone using his account, apparently “liked” a porn video on Twitter. Cruz blamed “a staffer who accidentally hit the wrong button.”

This makes you wonder about security issues and the risk of hacks. It also reminds us that porn is just a click away: at work, at school, or in the statehouse. If Ted Cruz can stumble upon it, so can any kid with a smart phone.

Twitter is responsible for other mayhem, especially when it is used as a vehicle for public policy. President Trump’s confusing recent tweets about DACA have kept people guessing. He has proclaimed unvetted policies via Twitter, such as the ban on transgender persons in the military. And he continues to use Twitter to launch ad hominem invective at “crooked Hillary,” “the fake news” and other enemies.


But the technology is not to blame. A tool is not responsible for malice or error. The Internet was not designed specifically for pornography. And Twitter was not intended as a platform for policy statements. The great dumbing down is not the medium’s fault – it is ours.

The social media ecosystem does provide a temptation for rudeness, crudeness and lewdness. But it is our eyes that move fast across our screens. It is the human user who swipes and pokes, looking for stimulation.

The speed of the medium favors the salacious and obscene. Click-bait preys upon short attention spans. It does not reward subtlety or complexity.

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The American attention span is shrinking along with our vocabulary and our sense of privacy. But it is we, the people, who allow ourselves to succumb to the temptations of stupidity.

Information swirls, unfiltered and raw, simple and direct. This is a great democratizing shift. Now the politicians and pornographers can go directly to the people. The Internet knows what you like and it will deliver it to your inbox.

But important things – public policy and sexual relationships – are complicated. Relationships and ideas need time and privacy. A policy is more than the flick of a thumb. Love is more than clicking the “like” button.

Understanding and intelligence are cultivated in quiet solitude. Wisdom grows slowly through a process of exploration and revision.

Our ever-present screens prevent us from finding privacy and silence. This makes us impatient and cranky. Courtesy and eloquence are rare. Civility is a quaint relic of a slower time. And compassion? Well, there is no button for that in the comments section.

We also lack guides and mentors. Experts have been demoted. Editorial expertise is replaced by robots and algorithms.

“Power to the people” is the slogan of the social media revolution. But who is to guide us or teach us how to interpret the information we circulate?


Plato feared democracy because it puts the mob in charge – the dumb, vicious and reactionary mob. He warned that the mob easily succumbs to false prophets and demagogues who flatter our baser instincts. I’m sure he would be appalled by the Twitter revolution.

Democracy is dangerous. But it is also precious. The freedom to Tweet is a modern invention. Long centuries of war and turmoil have secured our right to forward outrageous images on our tiny screens.

So are we wiser or dumber? That depends on what we choose to do with our liberty and our technology.

Social media creates an opportunity for better choices. We really do have the world at our fingertips. We can use this incredible resource and our liberty to build a better world.

We can choose to be civil, eloquent, and compassionate. We can educate rather than denigrate. Instead of accepting stupidity, we can strive for wisdom. The first step is to stop blaming the medium, while taking a look in the mirror.

Dignity and Public Service

A nation lacking in dignity means our children have no one to look up to

Fresno Bee, July 7, 2017

After President Trump’s most recent tweet storm against the media, several people – including GOP senators – said his behavior was “beneath the dignity of the office.”

On July 1, Trump tweeted that his use of social media was “modern day presidential.” A new norm is emerging, lacking in dignity. Trump takes this to a new level. But the modern presidency has lacked dignity since Bill Clinton dropped his pants in the Oval Office.

Dignity is difficult to create, but easy to destroy. The same is true of trust and respect. Dignity inspires confidence and admiration. Shameful behavior undermines credibility and inspires revulsion.

The demise of dignity also afflicts the news media, since Walter Cronkite gave way to Jerry Springer. Consider Mike Brzezinski’s response to Trump’s outrageous attacks against her. She posted an image on Twitter implying that Trump has small hands.

That sexual euphemism was used by Sen. Marco Rubio against Trump during the 2016 campaign. Trump, you’ll remember, badgered him by calling him “little Marco.”

And so it goes. It seems there are no adults left in the country. We are all smaller these days. Our children have no one to look up to.


The demise of dignity is linked to a general failure of civility. It is also linked to our inability to distinguish between public and private. Petty arguments and private parts are all on public display.

But dignity requires us to draw a line. The official acts of the office holder should be our focus. The private idiosyncrasies of those officials are really none of our business. In a dignified world, private personality is concealed behind the public persona.

That’s why judges wear robes and we call them “Your Honor.” It is also why cops wear uniforms. And it is why we say “Mr. President” instead of “Hey dude.”

Modern culture rejects that deferential stuff. We are informal and easygoing. We care more about cheap laughs than deferential esteem. Social media encourages thoughtless, reactive crudeness. And it degrades traditional notions of privacy. Dignity is destroyed by speed, stupidity and familiarity.

Some will say this is all good. Presidents and pundits are people, too. They have sex and get mad. Why not stop pretending that they don’t? It seems duplicitous for pundits and politicians to conceal their personal quirks and private opinions.

But the public-private distinction remains important. The First Amendment to the Constitution depends upon it.

You are free to pray in private; but the government is not free to force you to pray. You are free to assemble in public for political purposes; but you cannot trespass on private property for private purposes. You can say things that are highly critical of political figures; but you cannot slander or libel private persons.


And despite our informal culture, we expect professionals to live up to public standards of ethics and excellence. We want journalists, judges and janitors to keep their quirks concealed. What professionals do in private is their own business as long as they do their work for the public good.

Trust depends upon dignity. We trust professionals who clearly serve the public good. Dignified professionals speak carefully. They think critically and apply relevant expertise. They embody the collective wisdom of the institutions they represent. And they place service above self.

When dignity is lacking, we have no reason to trust these people, listen to them, or respect them. Respect must be earned. Once lost, it is not easily regained.

The demise of dignity in the public sphere is a serious problem for our democracy. Many Americans no longer trust our institutions, including government, business and the press. We have come to believe that no one is objective or professional – that everyone is in it for themselves.

Perhaps we are finally learning that public service was always a farce. Perhaps true dignity never existed. Maybe we are simply realizing that the emperor was never wearing any clothes. But the solution is not for everyone to simply drop their pants. A race to the bottom diminishes us all.

The recipe for dignity is simple. Behave according to the expectations of professional service. And always remember that the next generation wants someone to admire.