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In my first two pieces for this column, I engaged with consumption head-on, concerned with the physical through markets on campus and eating choices. This one, however, takes a less physical approach.
Given the recent crises in the Middle East, and subsequently on our campus, I have become acutely aware of the information I consume and where it comes from, especially on social media. As a progressive Jew, I feel like I am privy to two deeply opposed echo chambers of perceived truths about Israel and Palestine, and everyone is trying to announce theirs louder than the next.
Our lives, more so than ever before, are played out online — apps like Instagram, X, and Tik Tok have become hubs for our information consumption. In fact, our generation gets news from social media more than any before us. We rely on infographics, Tik Tok synopses, and (let’s be honest with ourselves) incendiary and oft-biased X threads to build and share foundational knowledge on issues ranging from elections to federal policies to, at the most extreme, war.
In the last few weeks, I’ve found myself deeply disillusioned by the way our social media consumption crushes our opportunity for intellectual discussion, our dedication to pragmatic and thoughtful solutions, and above all else, our empathy for each other.
In my efforts to navigate how to engage with social media during a time like this, I spoke with professor Christopher Robichaud, a Senior Lecturer in Ethics and Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School and the Director of Pedagogical Innovation at Harvard’s Safra Center for Ethics, who teaches a GENED at the College called Ignorance, Lies, Hogwash Humbug. I’m grateful for his advice.
Our battle over conceived truths online is no new phenomenon.
“We’ve always had a love affair with deception — self deception and other deception. We’ve always been prey to various forms of misinformation or disinformation or conspiracy theories or ideologies,” Robichaud told me.
Today, we find ourselves in an “information age” which has given us a “tremendously wide range of resources that can both lead to some amazing global change, but also really undermine democracy, and everything in between,” he added.
At its best, social media can act as a marketplace of ideas, allowing anyone an ‘equal’ platform to share their ideas and views. It can be a hub for activism, empowering organizers to reach wide audiences and manifest our urgency in times of crisis.
“Sometimes it is really important to show people hard, difficult, traumatic things, because that is how you arrive at the kind of indignation that I think is important for moral action,” Robichaud said.
But we must do better than blindly accept words online as facts just because they have millions of followers behind them, or because their shock agrees with our opinions, especially in times of war and moral uncertainty. Failing to do so risks endangering each other and peddling hatred in an already tension-ridden and devastating time.
We can’t forget that there is no expectation of journalistic integrity in an influencer’s infographics or podcast clips. A headline or a paragraph on a square background will never be substantial enough to build our bases of knowledge, and we should refuse any attempt to normalize them as news. Posts on X, Instagram, or Tik Tok should never receive the benefit of the doubt over trusted news sources. We must read past simple headlines, and we must slow down and take caution with our information consumption.
Unfortunately, social media’s design necessitates quick consumption, perhaps even pressuring us into it. But sometimes, when we are too quick to view, post, and repost, we fail to engage in the most important aspect of productive dialogue: checking our biases and listening without ego.
When the pursuit of truth is negated for a pursuit of followers, clicks, and algorithmic manipulation, and we blindly buy in, we risk throwing our opportunity for solutions to the side. On these platforms, Robichaud said, we are “talking at each other,” not “with each other.”
“It’s a deeply impoverished conversation, if you even want to call it a conversation, and to me we are in desperate need of more constructive, engaged conversation,” he said.
And to forgo real-life dialogue with “living, breathing people” for learning and arguing over social media would be, in Robichaud’s words, “a real travesty.”
As I sat in my room a few weeks ago, frozen, grieving the Israeli and Palestinian lives lost, the hostages ripped from their homes, and the ongoing horrors being committed by the governing body of a land that I love, I felt helpless as I watched friends and peers dig trenches behind their touch screens.
And I get it. When we feel powerless in making our world better in the face of terrorism and state-sponsored oppression, social media offers some consolation, providing an outlet to feel that maybe, just maybe, we can make an impact.
But in a world that repeatedly tells us, “If your life and views aren’t online, you may as well not exist,” are Instagram stories really a piece to a solution, or just a vehicle to scream into the meta void: “I am aware, and here is what side I am on?”
Instagram accounts with pretty infographics, striking words, and hard-set stances deriding anyone who feels uncertainty about the ‘facts’ they’re being inundated with only dig us dangerously deeper into our trenches as we repost and repost.
Robichaud’s advice to me?
“Be intentional. Be strategic. Ask yourself whether the kind of work that you’re doing is producing the effects that you want it to,” he said.
Reposting incendiary, traumatic, and unverified information on Instagram, let alone on an anonymous app like Sidechat, is a million times easier than turning to a peer you disagree with and asking them their thoughts. Clicking ‘post story’ with a pre-written infographic will always be less emotionally taxing than sitting down and telling someone how you feel and why. Your impact will never be as strong or immediate. Most people will swipe past in a few seconds.
Over lunch last week, a Palestinian friend told me, “If a solution is gonna come from anywhere, it should come from here.” I hope he’s right.
But where is ‘here?’ I believe ‘here’ is our common rooms, our dining halls, our classrooms, study spaces, a bench at the Charles River, the steps of Widener, and any other space that forces us to look each other in the eye with care, humanity, empathy, and a shared goal of a more prosperous, safer future for all.
‘Here’ could not be further from the trenches of our social media feeds.
Matthew E. Nekritz ’25, a Crimson Editorial editor, is a Social Studies Concentrator in Cabot House. His column, “The Things We Consume,” runs tri-weekly on Wednesdays.
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