When people hear that I’ve been traveling for the past four years, they’ll usually ask me two questions. First: What’s your favorite country? I never know how to answer that one. I love them all.
The second question tends to be: Weren’t you afraid? That’s easier to answer: Yes. Of course.
But the truth is, I don’t think travel is any more frightening than everyday life. Just being alive is terrifying. It’s why we work so hard to create stable, safe lives for ourselves, and why we usually stick to what’s familiar. It’s why we buy six different kinds of insurance, and wear a helmet when we ride a bike, and leave the chain on the door when a stranger knocks.
Part of the reason I went traveling in the first place was that I realized this. I figured, if life is always going to be scary and basically unpredictable, I might as well spend it seeing the world. Fear didn’t go away, but when I accepted it as a fact of life and stopped trying to fight or avoid it, it turned into a passport.
When Franklin Delano Roosevelt said that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself, he was speaking from personal experience. He had contracted polio twelve years earlier, which put him in a wheelchair. He surely had gone through the terror of not knowing whether the disease would kill him, or how it would affect his life and career. Then, just before his inauguration in 1933, he had nearly been assassinated. FDR knew fear.
I think President Roosevelt’s phrase meant much more than just encouragement toward positive thinking. I think FDR was pointing to the fact that fear – when we fear it, and think of it as something unmanageable and overwhelming, that we need to avoid at all costs – develops enormous destructive power.
When he used that famous phrase, Roosevelt was trying to coax Americans to step up to the challenges of the Great Depression. He felt that fear had paralyzed Americans, and he was attempting to stir them up into positive action that would help lift them out of the economic morass. Fear can paralyze, and paralysis can destroy an economy, a career, a relationship or a life.
Fear can also spiral into paranoia, and it can spur people to violence. This, I believe, is the risk that America faces now – and not only America at large, but every city and community within it, even Globe-Miami. It’s already happening on Facebook pages and in Twitter feeds.
Many Americans have noticed the divisiveness and polarization in politics and society – and most (60%, according to a recent Canadian research study) feel pessimistic that we will ever be able to unite enough to address the country’s challenges.
Fear is ripping us apart. We’ve become so afraid of each other that we’re destroying our communities. And well on the way to destroying our democracy.
The tragedy is that this fear, like most fear, is unfounded, unnecessary, and blown way out of proportion. It’s being stirred up by social media platforms and their advertisers, which profit from getting our attention.
When people are afraid, their attention becomes heightened and they will set aside other priorities in order to learn more about the source of their fear. They will listen to people who validate and encourage their fear. And they’ll obey people who claim to have a solution to the supposed threat. That’s how fear becomes an effective method of control. That’s how it becomes real.
Much of the scary or appalling material we see on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and other platforms isn’t true – it’s made up of messages tailored to each of us individually, intended to get our attention and keep it. Often that’s done through fear and outrage.
Social media creates a nightmare full of our own personal demons, and it’s so terrifying that we don’t know how to wake up from it. No one can get our attention away from it or talk us out of it, because our screens are full of it. We’re mistaking our Facebook feeds for reality. And mistaking reality for something terrible.
The documentary The Social Dilemma describes how artificial intelligence systems at Facebook, Twitter and other platforms are propagating fear-inducing opinions and misperceptions. These platforms have no real agenda, apparently, except to maximize ad revenue. It’s happening automatically, through these algorithms. And the executives at the tech companies that own these platforms are making too much money to want to change things.
But in the process, they’re irresponsibly creating a state of fear that makes Americans brittle, guarded and, at worst, prepared to engage in violence against one another.
Because of this social media–induced fear, Americans of both political parties are becoming more and more suspicious of one another. Democrats believe Republican policies “are so misguided that they threaten the nation’s well-being” – and vice versa. Republicans feel the same way about Democrat policies.
The Canadian study concluded that “at its current level, polarization threatens the stability of American democracy.”
Fear doesn’t have to be a killer. It doesn’t have to drive us over the edge. Fear that is accepted as the price of life on earth – the price of living in a diverse, free society – loses its cutting edge. It turns into courage and openness and trust. Fear, accepted, makes possible community and democracy. It’s possible to say, “I’m afraid, I’m not sure I can trust you, but I’m willing to talk to you and find out if that’s really true.” That’s essentially what I did four years ago when I flew off to Bangkok. I gave the world a chance, and it changed my life.
But social media is teaching us to let fear be our master. To give ourselves up to misunderstandings, manipulation, division and violence. To stop thinking, and keep scrolling. To share memes instead of understanding. To like outrageous posts instead of loving one another.
We always thought that America’s greatest enemies would come from overseas – from Russia, China or the Middle East. Turns out we don’t need any help to bring America to its knees.
The call was coming from inside the house.
And the answer isn’t complicated: Put down the damn phone.
The Social Dilemma features interviews with executives, designers and engineers from tech companies, as well as psychologists and researchers to explain why social media is so addictive and so threatening to our society. The Social Dilemma is currently showing on Netflix. If you don’t have Netflix, information is available at www.thesocialdilemma.com.
Patricia Sanders lived in Globe from 2004 to 2008 and at Reevis Mountain School, in the Tonto National Forest, from 2008 to 2014. She has been a writer and editor for GMT since 2015. She currently lives on Santa Maria island in the Azores.