Social media ruining Colorado politics. Can we log out?

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Social media may be the worst thing to ever happen to Colorado politics.

Yes, it can be good to connect with others digitally. Yes, you can learn about events and meet new people. Yes, you can ask questions and run campaigns for free. And yes, they can monitor lawmakers 24/7, which can help hold them more accountable.

You can also find yourself in the rabbit hole of misery.

The negative side effects of social media are well documented. Numerous studies have shown that social media use is strongly associated with loneliness, anxiety, depression, and a variety of health and behavioral problems. Social media use correlates with mainstream political extremism and belief in conspiracy theories.

These tools do not allow a society and democracy to flourish. Building communities requires listening and empathy, qualities that are greatly discounted on social media platforms. As we navigate the choppy waters of reaching consensus, as is the case in politics, our minds demand more than online interaction can provide. This is especially true when social media exchanges are often brief and devoid of context, tone of voice, visual cues, and real names and faces that help mirror neurons convey kindness and compassion to one another.

Putting a keyboard in our midst in politics, especially local politics, makes it all too easy to fall under the whims of social media algorithms. Over the years, users of these platforms have unknowingly been trained like Pavlov’s dogs with a specific scale of rewards (ie likes, hearts, follows) and punishments (ie silence).

Over time, users learn to change their behavior and control the game: increased engagement is a win. Reduced participation is a loss. This is extremely problematic, because most of us do not realize how far we have fallen.

Consciously or otherwise, social media users have learned that the more polite and enthusiastic we are, the more rewarded we are on the platforms. Unfortunately, negative attention still prevails with these rules, so we shout, talk, lie and fight, all in the name of creating noise and pushing our agenda. Digital battles with neighbors and colleagues? Well, that’s Tuesday afternoon. And with millions of users, we don’t just see one or two bad apples. We can see dozens or hundreds of them every day.

Such convictions dominate Colorado politics. With the exception of the few who are wise enough to stay silent on digital discourse—most of us you probably can’t even mention because they’re not outgoing enough—most of us engage in unhealthy relationships every day. Frustration, anger, lies, distraction, hate, or whatever else results, we are sorting out the worst mixture of ethnicity and division.

Online engagements on Proposition HH and the special session are yet another example. It was relentless chaos from the state’s most vocal players. In general, we lose hours with single line attackers attacking each other in order to win. but why? It’s not really about working together to make the best policy, so why do we do this to ourselves? Better yet, why do we do this to each other?

I know we need to break free from this food craze, but I don’t know how. I don’t expect big changes in social media any time soon, unless there’s a big change in regulations or companies breaking up. So how do we stop ourselves from doing this damage to ourselves? How can we stop encouraging politicians to pay attention? How do we start rewarding listening and working together again?

I understand that it’s hard to give up social media when you feel like everyone is on it. Although I loathe these forums, I struggle to leave them completely. why? Because I’m a regular opinion columnist at a digital newspaper, and roughly 50% of Americans now get their news from social media. Putting myself out there is like choosing to sit on the bench during a game. Although lately, I’ve been doing exactly that, mostly because I’m much happier without it.

I can’t imagine how many fights under the capitol dome could be avoided if Colorado officials knew they weren’t competing for viral attention. How many movements or campaigns would change if the news wasn’t so loud, so adversarial, but rather the quietest among us? If elected leaders choose to lead by example rather than fan the flames, how can the common man get involved differently? In short, what would Colorado politics look like today without the negative influence of social media? I strongly think it will be for the best.

But if opting out now leaves us with a bad case of FOMO at best and a job at worst, how can individuals opt out if the collective continues? Without social media, can we return to a world where politics is truly local?

I want to hang out, listen more and find out the answer.

Trish Zornio contributes to The Colorado Sun, a non-partisan news organization based in Denver.

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