Anger Issues: Finding Peace in the Age of Social MediaFeb 02, 2017
In the wake of Donald Trump’s stunning victory in the 2016 election what appears to be an unprecedented wave of anger has rolled across this great country. In the hours after network talking heads declared the billionaire and former television reality star the winner over Hillary Clinton, collective howls of “NOOOOOOOOOOO!” or “YESSSSSSSSSSS!” could be heard echoing across the social media landscape. Those cries of despair or victory were followed immediately by an unleashing of comments, photos, and memes so filled with anger, hate, and vitriol that it took even the most jaded observers of social media by surprise.
Fueled by the high emotions flooding Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, the response turned visceral as some of those upset with the upset win by Trump took to the streets to express their fury. In the days that followed, the rage on both sides seemed to grow as some Trump supporters vented long-suppressed aggression towards minorities across the country.
As it turns out, it was a minority of supporters from both political flavors were generating the bulk of that angry reaction. But when it was viewed under the magnifying glass of a breathless news machine that is more interested in “being first” than “being factual” and then inflamed by countless social media “shares and retweets”….it’s obvious that the truth never had a chance.
Jonathan Swift, the author of some brilliant satire back in the 1700’s, once wrote, “Falsehood flies and the Truth comes limping after it.” Mark Twain is credited with the similar saying, “A lie can travel halfway around the world before the truth can get its boots on.”
The emergence of social media outlets like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Reddit have accelerated the expression of information and emotion to the point where Swift and Twain would both be stunned by the speed in which falsehoods, powered by the expression of anger, can now penetrate to the very core of society.
And it’s not just national issues. Browse local Facebook pages from the City of Moore, the Moore Monthly magazine, or one of the Moore-centric groups devoted to sharing items of local interest. It won't take long to find a thread filled with a mixture of angry rumors and falsehoods that typically go unchallenged. These responses seem to be growing in number and intensity.
We talked with Dr. Mitch Abrams, one of the nation’s experts on anger management, about the apparent rise of anger appearing in social media. Dr. Abrams is a clinical, forensic, and sports psychologist who works with inmates, athletes, and individuals, helping them learn to harness their anger and other negative emotions. (He also has some fascinating thoughts on the Joe Mixon case – so make sure you check out that article in this edition of the Moore Monthly) Dr. Abrams doesn’t necessarily believe that people are angrier than ever, but they now have another outlet for that anger.
“What social media has done, has allowed, is anonymity,” said Dr. Abrams, “And that anonymity leads to an opportunity to display what you might call ‘beer muscles.’”
Beer muscles, according to Dr. Abrams, are that kind of false strength or courage that puff up when someone has had too much to drink, freeing them to do or say things they would normally never consider.
“People will say stuff on social media that they’ll never have the cajones to say to my face,” Dr. Abrams said. “It’s not that they are necessarily angrier than they were in the past, but they’re loosening their filters on what they used to say in terms of, ‘Oh that was a little too far, I’ve gotta pull that one back.’”
Local therapist, Dub Rogers from Christian Counseling Associates, agrees with Dr. Abrams on the topic of social media loosening filters.
“It’s not as personal as face-to-face,” said Rogers. “You’ve got a screen, you’ve got distance. I haven’t seen any research, but it seems as though it makes us much freer to say something over social media to say things I would never say face-to-face.”
Scrolling through a Facebook or Twitter feed in the hours, days, and weeks following the 2016 election, it’s easy to see that Dr. Abrams is right and might be generous by using the phrase “loosening their filters.” Vile and threatening comments flowed from supporters of both Trump and Clinton. On a local level all you have to do is bring up topics like the 4th Street railroad crossing, traffic on 19th Street, or property taxes and you’ll get an explosion of anger, misinformation, and personal attacks that will make even the most jaded social media users wince.
While some argue that it’s too much, Dr. Abrams correctly points out that it’s not as simple as telling others to shut up.
“You’ve gotta be careful here because this is Bill of Rights stuff here, so people have the right to say whatever the hell they want,” said Dr. Abrams. “So long as you’re not yelling out ‘Fire’ in a theater, we still live in a society where we have free speech, free press and all the rest of that stuff.”
So how do you get people to disagree in a respectful way? Is that even possible in this day and age? Both Dr. Abrams and Rogers suggest that you can’t rely on social media to get the full story of what someone is trying to say to you.
“You lose all of the non-verbal and emotional communication without the face-to-face interaction,” said Rogers. “You can still get some of that over a phone call, but you still can’t get the true interaction.”
“As a therapist, I can tell you that the non-verbals matter so much,” said Dr. Abrams. “Social media scares me in this way because you just can’t get that sense of acknowledgment of understanding each other.”
Rogers and Dr. Abrams say things like body language and facial expression give context to statements that we might otherwise misunderstand. And with a face-to-face conversation, there’s always the opportunity to expand on and explain what we hear. When you’re limited to 140-characters on Twitter, there’s no chance at all for depth. Dr. Abrams points out that what most of us probably want is simply to be heard and understood.
“I’ve always taken the position that I’d rather be understood than liked,” said Dr. Abrams. “I’d prefer to be both. But I’d rather be understood, so I choose to communicate directly, and I don’t always pick the right words to soften the blow.”
What advice does Dr. Abrams have for those seeking to express themselves on social media? First of all, he says that we should know ourselves and be true to who we are as we try to reflect that truth to the people around us. Secondly, we should acknowledge that what others say to or about us does matter.
“People try to pretend they don’t care what others think about, but the truth is that we do care,” said Dr. Abrams. “Most people’s opinion of you should not dictate your opinion of yourself. That comes from the people that I value.”
And what to do with anger? While some would suggest that it should be squelched, neither Rogers nor Abrams believes that anger is, in and of itself, a bad thing.
“Anger can be like this red warning light going off in your car,” said Rogers. “It’s a signal that you need to pay attention because something is wrong. But you do not have to act on the anger without thinking it through.”
“One of the hardest things about social media is that people provoke you in an emotional way and you need to insert a period of time before you react,” said Dr. Abrams.
The anger management specialist even has a tool that he uses with athletes and other clients to help them learn how to express their anger in a healthy way. He calls it the “Five Minute Yo Mama Rule.”
“No matter what comes to you, you’ve gotta wait five minutes before you respond,” said Dr. Abrams. “Then you type it down and you gotta look at and tell me, “If yo mama saw that, would you still send it?’. If the answer’s yes, you’re good to go.”