I have 70 friends on Facebook, more suited to starting a backyard barbecue than a national movement.

Eric Frydenlund mug

Eric Frydenlund

I “like” everything my kids and grandkids say, do, or share on Facebook. Like the parade watcher, I smile and cheer as the spectacle goes by but, other than words of encouragement, don’t have too much to say.

Except that is, when my wife posts a hilarious video of Jimmy Fallon and Luke Bryan singing about the pronunciation of “gyros,” which I have struggled with of late. Point well-taken, dear. I will now say it with a “y” instead of a “g.”

Despite being a social media parade bystander, I marvel at the power of mass media, including cable news and social advocacy platforms.

Once the province of friends and families wanting to stay connected, social media has woven its way into the political and commercial fabric of America and the world. The results are mixed.

Hailed as the means for an otherwise disenfranchised electorate to rally around social causes, and isolated and oppressed third-world citizens to stay informed, the power of social media to unite stands unprecedented in the history of communication.

Yet the power of mass media to misinform, incite and otherwise inflame backyard disputes into full-blown conflagrations remains equally unprecedented.

In a sobering statistic, Pew Research found that two-thirds of Americans get “at least part of their news from Facebook.” After the Las Vegas shooting, Facebook and other platforms erroneously promoted politically motivated “news” that misidentified the shooter.

The gossip that passes as news on social media platforms depends on how many people share the news; rather like people spread the common cold by how many times they sneeze in public. It offers a quick way to spread a virus, but not a good way to cure the patient.

Internet algorithms give more weight to “trending” topics rather than objective accuracy. Oh, and to make money. Walter Cronkite, that icon of trusted news sources, who ended his news report with, “and that’s the way it is,” might now end his broadcast with “and that’s the way it tweets.”

The issues that divide us are many. Abortion, flag kneeling, race relations, economic disparity, and of course partisan politics — although the two-party system has become so fragmented, we now each have our own party. According to columnist Michael Gerson, “Disgruntlement is our nation’s common ground.”

Domestic terrorism, racial hatred, presidential tweets and political propaganda — Russian and otherwise — trend to the top of our collective conscience, which fosters more terrorism, hatred, tweets and propaganda. We are the victims of our own insatiable desire for sensationalism, which spreads through mass media like a virus though a bloodstream.

And like a bloodhound smells the letting of blood, the mass media juggernaut searches for the next hot-button issue that trend into the national awareness. We are witnessing the disintegration of the social fabric by commercialism.

The debate rages about the right to kneel or the duty to stand during the national anthem. Gun control and gun rights advocates dispute the meaning of the Second Amendment. Las Vegas police discuss the timeline.

Wait. The conversation on the other end of the spectrum is equally compelling. An Army Reservist reunites with the man he saved during the Las Vegas shooting. A total of 3,500 scientists author a paper announcing the groundbreaking discovery of a Kilonova, the cataclysmic collision of two neutron stars, in a remarkable example of collaboration.

From a systems perspective, mass media represent a vast community without borders that extends beyond communication. Everything we say, do and share online has consequence in the real world.

The choice between using mass media to inspire rather than incite is not up to government regulators, cable news producers, presidential tweeters or foreign interlopers; although it would be nice if some of them showed some restraint. It’s up to us to mend the social fabric. We choose what to watch. What to believe. What to share. What to communicate.

Ironically, our connectivity does not translate into meaningful connections. “We live in the most technologically connected age in the history of civilization, yet rates of loneliness have doubled since the 1980s,” said former Surgeon General Vivek H. Murthy. That leaves a lot of lonely people out there waiting to be inspired.

Beyond my grandkids’ smiles and a Jimmy Fallon laugh, I’m still waiting to be inspired.

Eric Frydenlund is a columnist who lives in Prairie du Chien.


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