“It’s the best of times, and the worst of times!”
While social media have brought people closer together, they’ve, ironically, divided us.
Yes, it’s true — social media have polarized our society.
I believe we have to start with healthy skepticism and respect. Cast doubt on fake news, biased views and show respect for everyone, especially those with contrasting opinions. That’s how Hong Kong people can join hands again and embark on a new journey together
Some sociologists have warned that in any community, there’s always a radical among 1,000 people. In Hong Kong, that accounts for roughly 7,000 to 8,000 people. They live in isolation in different areas across the city. Before being connected by social media, they spend most of their time with schoolmates, friends, family members and neighbors. Whenever they express their extreme opinions, they find themselves despised within their own circles. Gradually, they have to review their positions, and are reluctant to put them into action. After all, humans are social animals.
Moreover, in the era of traditional media, people are informed mainly through television, newspapers and radio through which the threshold for anybody to make a point is very high. People must be knowledgeable enough to present their views and have them heard, and debates on different viewpoints are always held. Living in such an environment, the majority are inclined to be more rational and so would society.
The emergence of social media has changed it all — it has enabled more people to make their voices heard while linking them together. However, social media have also given extremists a free hand to perpetuate their ideas. Suddenly, radicals have garnered supporters in the thousands, making them feel they’re righteous. Thus, delusions like “burning down police stations” and “killing the officers” have materialized.
On the other hand, notions such as “drive all US citizens out of Hong Kong” have also spread.
Meanwhile, the sense of acceptance, which they have been longing for, has pushed them to spend more time on social media. Consequently, they neither listen to different opinions nor read news from sources other than from their friends. Such “inbreeding” would only enable them to be further radicalized.
Moreover, this environment has triggered a chain effect whereby moderates tend to side with the extremists on their side of the political spectrum just because they’re disgusted by the radicals on the opposite end. Consequently, public opinion becomes more polarized, dialogue becomes more off the table and clashes are inevitable.
Of course, I’ve never underestimated the effects of deep-rooted structural problems and policy failures. But social media do play an essential role in pushing people apart.
What’s worse is that this is a global issue, with none of the governments worldwide having come up with a viable solution. Their hands are tied by the principle of freedom of speech and the protection of privacy. Every step they take against extreme views would make society skeptical.
On the other end, social media companies are not in a position to help balance people’s sources of information. On the contrary, they’re more willing to gyrate news to suit readers’ tastes. The “spiral of radicalism” will escalate and there’ll be no “core values” to speak of. Standpoints prevail.
Although it’ll be difficult, legislation to curb such a worrying trend is desperately needed. Governments and legislatures must act.
The ongoing social tensions in Hong Kong have to cease with great reconciliation. And, indeed, social reconciliation requires not only the wisdom of political leaders, but also the efforts of all in crossing the chasm.
What can we do? I believe we have to start with healthy skepticism and respect. Cast doubt on fake news, biased views and show respect for everyone, especially those with contrasting opinions. That’s how Hong Kong people can join hands again and embark on a new journey together.
The author is a news editor of China Daily Hong Kong Edition.
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