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Facebook revelations: Social media has empowered our voices but impoverished our hearing

Dog photos, updates from friends, wild misinformation about vaccine safety: One of these things is not like the other.

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If past patterns hold, the public relations and political storms lashing Facebook will soon blow over, and Mark Zuckerberg and company will return their attention to reaping more profit from their social media leviathan.

But before the spotlight veers off toward one of our other crises, we ought to use this moment to get to the bottom of what's gone wrong. How has social media – billed as a force to democratize communications and connect more people – turned into something that does more harm than good?

The answer, it’s clearer than ever, is that while social media has empowered our speaking, it has impoverished our hearing. Unless we get better at the latter, and the platforms make that possible, they will keep on fueling the dysfunction of our time.

The kind of “hearing” I’m talking about cannot be helped by closed captions or a device you place in your ear. What’s falling short is our ability to take in and do something productive with the torrents of information and opinion – some true and edifying, much of it not – flooding our screens and brains.

USA TODAY's Jill Lawrence: Why I'm still on Facebook, even though it's dividing and inciting America for profit

Remember when the internet was new and, later, when social media made its first appearances? Publishing and pontificating were no longer confined to a finite number of newspapers, magazines and broadcasters. Everyday people could publish and broadcast, through blogs at first, and then through podcasts or posts that could circulate widely on the new social platforms. Megaphones and printing presses for all!

For a while, it seemed that everyone I knew was starting a podcast. Pretty cool, I thought. Each of us could have our own talk show, focused on whatever niche or mass-interest topics interested us. Then I wondered: Who, if anyone, was listening?

On listening well

The thing about communication is that it requires receivers and responders. One can craft and send out the most enlightening, articulate messages in the world, but they are meaningless if no one is listening.

Or listening well.

When it comes to our intake of information, it's not just whether or how much we read, watch and listen to. It’s how we listen, and to whom.

Are we taking care to separate truth from fiction? Are we opening ourselves to content beyond what confirms our biases and beliefs? Are we doing our part to spread truthful, helpful information, and to stanch the flow of garbage? Are we conscious of the way the algorithms manipulate us by filling our feeds with content aimed at getting a hostile reaction out of us?

Too often, no. It seems that the species that was clever enough to invent the internet and social media is not wise enough to put them, on aggregate, to beneficial use.

Deciding what is true and what is not: Yes, it’s time to act against Facebook – just don’t put the government in charge

Scorn has been heaped, and rightfully so, on spreaders of misinformation about vaccine safety and effectiveness, and on creators of disinformation about election integrity. But as the pandemic drags on and democracy faces threats not seen in generations, blame must also go to those willfully imbibing at the noxious-content spigot. People like Alex Jones – now the loser of lawsuits brought by parents of dead kids defamed by his Sandy Hook conspiracy theories – would not be such a pestilence if not for the many people willing to consume and spread the lies.

On consuming responsibly 

Research findings about Instagram’s life-sapping effects, especially on teenage girls, reveals something else that's deficient in the way we consume social media. The culture needs to recover traditional wisdom that warns us against making pernicious comparisons between ourselves and others.

Enough with using social media to show how (supposedly) awesome your life is. Enough with allowing social media to make you feel bad for failing to match other people’s touched-up images of happiness and perfection.

And companies like Facebook need to stop making it so damn hard for us to be good, responsible consumers of information.

Please, Facebook, stop effectively rewarding inflammatory content with more engagement and invoking free speech while failing to properly accept your responsibility to prevent “speech” that feeds violence and tears down democracy.

Take a cue from the “Sesame Street” game that shows four items and asks kids to identify the one that doesn’t go with the other three. I’ll tell you what doesn’t go with the cute dog photos and updates from friends that make Facebook enjoyable. It’s the infuriating, alarming news posts there to ambush me and – human psychology being what it is – divert my attention from the warm and helpful content I went in for.

Sorry for being naive. Of course Facebook won’t do something that’s likely to limit growth and profits. Unless the government and public make them.

Generations past would be amazed to see how social media has empowered so many people to communicate so unrestrainedly, to so many people. But the clamorous speaking that defines this moment is useless – worse than useless – if we do not start doing a better job of listening and hearing.

Tom Krattenmaker, a member of USA TODAY’s Board of Contributors, writes on religion and values in public life and directs communications at Yale Divinity School. He is the author of “Confessions of a Secular Jesus Follower.”  Follow him on Twitter: @krattenmaker

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