It feels like 1968. How do I know this? Because everyone is saying so. (If you don’t believe me, look at this.)
To be fair, there is grounds for the comparison. In 1968, the country was torn by urban violence, civil unrest, and (domestic) terrorism. College campuses were hotbeds and protesting was all the rage. Uncertainty was in the air, the left was devouring itself, and on the right a candidate preaching order was promising a return to safer times. Sound familiar?
The parallels are interesting but there is a problem with the comparison. Namely, the actual violence and unrest the U.S. is experiencing today is nowhere near the levels witnessed in 1968.
As the Washington Post recently illustrated, violent crime is plunging even as the perception that crime is increasing is on the rise (see graph below).
The 1960s saw numerous high-profile politicians and activists shot and killed, including John and Robert Kennedy, Martin Luther King Jr., and Malcom X. During the final two years of the decade, numerous federal buildings were bombed by radicals and a college dean at Columbia was taken hostage by members of two student organizations (Students for a Democratic Society and the Student Afro-American Society). And then there was, of course, the Vietnam War.
The violence and unrest we’re witnessing today does not near let alone eclipse that which the nation endured during the late 1960s. So why the comparisons?
Because it feels like 1968. And there is evidence that social media could be at the heart of it. A friend of mine, a communications leader in a major international firm, opined on this recently:
Facebook was founded in 2004 and opened to the general public in 2006. Twitter was founded in 2006….Fast forward to 2016 where Facebook has hit 1.6 billion users and the introduction of mobile platforms like WhatsApp and SnapChat (and Pokemon Go) have changed how people interact with each other and the world around them. This new reality puts a camera in every pocket and the ability to broadcast to a worldwide viewing audience with the tap of a button….
The result is that people of vastly different perspectives, ideologies, experiences, and backgrounds are revealed to one another in a way like never before. There has been a great deal of commentary on how social media is changing us; but that’s not all it is changing. It's changing the way perceive our systems—and each another. I’ll again allow my friend the floor:
The veil is lifted on the wonders and horrors that occur in day-to-day life that have typically been known only to those in the immediate vicinity of what is happening. The culture of "don't ask don't tell" is gone and is replaced with an information hungry (and quick to judge) social animal….We now see countless subway videos of racists throwing tantrums, police arrests that have gone awry, live video streams of snipers who are killing police officers....We are so quick to embrace new technology as it becomes available but we never stop to think that this new Facebook feature or this new social media platform or this new augmented reality game is literally changing how we think and interact with each other. It empowers us with more information while simultaneously giving us this false sense that "things are getting worse" when the truth is, [it’s] always been this way. We are more globally aware than we've ever been and we see it through each other's eyes instead of a corporate media channel.
I think this is largely true. And then factor this in with new technology that allows people to cocoon themselves in media of their choosing, information that often only confirms their biases and reinforces their perception of reality. The result? People are growing less tolerant of each other in a world that demands more tolerance. More certain in a world growing increasingly complicated.
It’s not 1968, but it feels like it is because new media is both fueling and exaggerating our divisions. But the divisions that divide Americans are real. Ideas that had once united them are now a source of disharmony. The superficial unity that has held the nation together is being peeled away. (And that can be a dangerous thing, as history has shown.)
Is social media to blame for all of this? It’s difficult to blame a technology that serves essentially as a mirror of ourselves. But it's quite possible that social media could be revealing and amplifying the fractures in our society and sowing the seeds of our discord.