Social media: It’s the one and only place in our world where so many ideas and people can exist at one time, all on one screen.
Dubbed the “modern public square” by Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy, the intangible space of social media has provided a hub so vast that it now acts as the epicenter for much debate, discussion and spreading of information and ideas. The benefits seem endless as they have transformed our lives as we know them, but the existence of social media is a double-edged sword. The constant use of social media has clear negative effects, but none stand out as strongly as the insurmountable hate spewed across apps.
A variety of factors allow for hateful rhetoric to spread to the screens of thousands, if not millions, of users, creating an audience and an environment for it to thrive. What is most prominent, though, is the lack of empathy that causes this problem. Interactions on social media apps are missing one component of any daily, in-person situation: the face-to-face discussion. From constant social media use, those personal interactions we use to practice empathy are lacking, costing us the ability to understand others emotionally, according to University of California Berkeley science director Emiliana Simon-Thomas.
Lack of empathy is also heightened through desensitization brought by a constant influx of violence in media. As studies show, violent media may be a cause of aggressive behavior in impressionable individuals, especially younger people. This encapsulates the many forms that violent media can take, which now includes social media. So, what becomes a norm in our daily social media diet is thus not taken as seriously as it should be.
Additionally, hateful rhetoric finds support within certain communities online. Individuals flock towards groups that share similar sentiments on issues, eventually being exposed to messages that reaffirm their beliefs and do so with a negative twist. These echo chambers create a place for radical beliefs to thrive, according to a study on moral homogeneous networks that looked at radical groups online. The same study also displays that once people develop a personal, moral connection to a cause, there is a higher chance of them acting in support of it.
The use of social media as a weapon for hate has increased in recent weeks, resulting from the ongoing war in Gaza.
In this period of just one month and nine days, complaints of Islamophobia have risen by 216%, according to the Council on American-Islamic Relations, and a 400% increase in antisemitic incidents, per the Anti-Defamation League. And, much of this exists on social media.
On TikTok, videos are rife with comments making indirect or direct attacks towards the opposite side, fueling the fire between individuals who are often simply discussing their faith or ethnic background. Take for example TikTok user @b3cky.dc, who received a comment from one of her videos that included antisemitic stereotypes, ones often used in political rhetoric in Nazi Germany. Additionally, videos such as one posted by TikTok user @afgayn that asks people to use a filter that is said to generate funds for Palestine, received a number of comments such as “Fuck Palestine.”
The hate is thrown back and forth, and it exists on other social media platforms as well.
On X, formerly known as Twitter, hashtags of #DeathtoMuslims and #Hitlerwasright were trending on the platform during the early stages of the war, according to the New York Times. The same can be said for Instagram, too. In a now-deleted political cartoon from the Washington Post that was reposted by the State of Israel’s Instagram page, the drawing displays a man who represents Hamas with children and a woman tied around his body, acting as “human shields.”
There are instances where social media has been used to counteract or bring to light these issues, however.
The University of Connecticut chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine and UConn Muslim Students Association each posted on their Instagram pages, @uconnsjp and @uconnmsa, two instances of hate-related messages sent to the group. From there, the posts spread throughout the UConn community online, with many individuals calling for the university to take action for its students.
While bringing attention to these matters is important, it will not stop the issue. These constant, unrelenting attacks on individuals does nothing but fuel the hateful rhetoric and angry emotion towards the matter without doing anything beneficial other than spreading antisemitism and Islamophobia. This backtracks on any attempts to progress, preventing moving forward as one.