As Gun Control Debate Heats Up, Social Media Fans Flames of Fanaticism
As President Barack Obama announced unilateral executive action to curb what he and many observers call an “epidemic of gun violence,” social media users on both sides of the gun control debate continued to ratchet up their polarized rhetoric.
Social media offers ordinary individuals an unprecedented platform on which to broadcast their beliefs quite literally to the entire world. Twitter, Facebook and other sites are democratizing debate in a way that was inconceivable just a decade ago. But some observers worry that instead of contributing constructively to the much-needed national conversation about gun violence, social media is amplifying and aggravating the most bellicose voices on both sides of the battle, but especially those desperately clinging to their ‘God-given’ right to wield deadly weapons banned just about everywhere else on Earth.
Psychological studies have shown that the dissociative anonymity of social media has a disinhibition effect in which people, sitting safely behind the protective barrier of their computer screens, say things they wouldn’t dare utter face to face. Studies have also shown that social media amplifies emotions. In debates over life-and-death issues, the results can be explosive. Polemic pyrotechnics and heated hyperbole win out over reasonable thinking and measured exchanges.
The insidious combination of the disinhibition effect, amplified emotion and hot-button political issues can move otherwise reasonable, law-abiding adults to shocking displays of online aggression—even outright threats, as this reporter learned not too long ago when he crossed a federally licensed firearms dealer in Arizona by posting a meme on Facebook comparing American and Canadian attitudes about guns and healthcare:
That PJ Clevenger, who had to pass a rigorous background check and agree to obey the law as conditions for obtaining his license, would risk losing it all by posting a felonious Facebook death threat is proof of how powerful a force social media can exert on us as we debate some of the most important issues of our time.
Traditional debate as we know it is increasingly rare on social media as people tend to post, retweet and ‘like’ like-minded content among like-minded individuals. Media researchers call this the ‘echo chamber effect,’ in which beliefs are reinforced and amplified within an insular virtual environment in which dissenting viewpoints are censored and orthodoxy is demanded at the risk of rabid rejection. Exaggerations, distortions, misinformation and outright lies are not only tolerated, they are ‘liked’ and retweeted thousands of times, as happened when Republican presidential frontrunner Donald Trump tweeted spurious statistics on black-on-white gun crime. Neither side has a monopoly on this sort of behavior, although it is almost always observed at its worst among the pro-gun crowd.
As a frustrated President Obama announced executive action—including expanded background checks, mental health funding and smart gun research—to tackle a public health emergency which claims more than 30,000 lives year after bloody year, the echo chamber grew even more deafening. Not even high elected officials are immune, as this alarming thinly-veiled threat of violence against would-be government gun-grabbers by Texas Gov. Greg Abbott proves:
Is it possible to turn down the volume in the echo chamber? Probably not. Social media has grown so ubiquitous—there are now more than a billion active Facebook, 400 million Instagram and 300 million Twitter accounts—that it is unrealistic to imagine a suddenly civilizing effect on online speech. Nor would such a chilling effect necessarily be a good thing. However, when it comes to the debate on what, if anything, to do about one of the greatest public health and safety crises facing America today, there are plenty of voices on both sides of the fray, but mostly from the pro-gun side, that could benefit from a bit of a virtual ‘cooling off period.’