IF I had to count the ways in which social media has warped modern political life, I’d need a quantum computer for the calculations, and 20 encyclopaedias to write the story. We don’t need to rehearse the elections social media has distorted, the hate it’s unleashed, the culture wars it’s created. Division and anger isn’t a by-product, it’s built in. Nor do we need to recount each miserable step along the way as social media inflicted its deadening effect on intelligence, learning, wit, and conversation. Stupidity and conspiracy are social media’s twin monster children. The ghastly metaphor for modern romance is a silent couple staring into their iPhones.

We know social media has created hordes of the lonely, isolated, depressed and anxious. It’s caused the modern mental health crisis – tyrannising young and old alike though the narcissism of the selfie, addicting them with the compulsion of clicks. Fittingly, only drug dealers and tech billionaires call their customers ‘users'. Social media has crushed humanity’s boundless curiosity down to a nullifying need for constant reaffirmation that our view of the world alone is right.

Don’t you ache for the time when politics wasn’t the constant topic of conversation? But social media is the catalyst now for culture and it thrives on, exponentially perpetuating, political division – so everything is politicised, to the point where politics becomes absurd.

But what’s now truly unsettling is the way social media has infected our most intimate relationships. Instead of difficult and meaningful interactions with friends and family in real life, we’re starting to interact with people who matter through social media. You may as well get an apple corer from your kitchen and gouge out your soul if you mediate real relationships online.

This sense that social media has been creeping not just into our minds but our hearts has troubled me for a while. Anecdotally, I’ve heard often of people falling out with family and friends online. Then a news story appeared the other day which encapsulated just what was disturbing me. I don’t wish to give the fame-hungry actor Laurence Fox more unnecessary attention, but given this cautionary tale is about social media it should be no surprise he’s involved. Fox, if you recall came to public attention not through acting but by being mouthy clickbait on Question Time – which is entirely fitting given that QT is a loading bay for Twitter outrage.

Fox was friends with the actress Rebecca Front. She ‘blocked’ Fox on Twitter. If you aren’t on social media – lucky you – blocking is the online equivalent of sending you to coventry. It’s digital banishment. Now, while I understand why anyone would get sick of Fox and his endless culture war schtick on social media, what I don’t understand is why two friends would behave like this online. If a friend of mine did something on social media which I disagreed with, I’d call them up, or meet up. I’d do what humans have been doing for millennia – talk to them, not fight publicly online. But we’re now using social media as a substitute for the human heart.

I’ve experienced this myself – the bewildering moment when real life friendship collides with social media. I should point out that I’ve never used Facebook – why would I sell my soul (quite literally through the mountain of data produced) to that creep in Silicon Valley? The only social media I use is Twitter because in the world of journalism not being on that horrible platform is equivalent to arriving at a press conference with parchment and quill. The perception is that Twitter will bring readers to your work, and journalists want to be read. My view of the relationship between a journalist and social media is like a craftsman compelled to use toxic materials. So, for years now, I’ve limited my use of Twitter to simply posting links to my work. I seldom comment or interact anymore.

Yet still, in this world where human-feeling is screen-warped, I’ve had folk I know – not strangers or trolls – folk who know my family, people I’ve ate and drank with, folk who are friends, get nasty in public online over something that’s upset them about my work. Disagreement is good – relish it. But if you know someone – make a phone call, talk problems out. Meet that friend for drinks, or lunch. Don’t live a tiny life online. Live the big life you once lived. Be human. Real.

Let me confess one reason I severely limit social media use. A few years ago, I realised something. Everyone – including the people I know, the people I love, all my friends, all my family, and most importantly myself – comes across as a needy idiot online. I recall flicking through my social media posts and cringing. Then I looked at the posts of my friends. I cringed. I looked at posts from public figures I admired. I cringed. I was false. They were false. Everyone was trying so hard. It was all so desperate. So awfully phoney.

On social media, we’re all trying to be something else – and it’s ugly, anti-human. In fact, over the years many people haven’t just tried to be something else, they’ve become something else. They’ve become creatures refracted through social media and in the process they’ve lost something human. They don’t pick up the phone and tell a friend they disagree with them, they do it online, as a public display of their new avatar’s persona. We’re witnessing the decline of the human heart.

People are altering not just how others perceive them, but how they perceive themselves. And none of it’s true – that’s the awful madness. We’re all just weak creatures on a rock spinning in space, but on social media you’re your own little god. The chasm between the reality of a human life and the pretence of social media is where the terrible unhappiness of this age lies.

So what do we do? Blow up the internet? Sadly impossible. So I’d recommend the new Netflix documentary The Social Dilemma, where leading tech execs go rogue, admitting every failing I’ve listed. Their answer? Reform. Take social media away from dangerous billionaires and their manipulative algorithms. Give it to the people. That would be social media, not social destruction. Until then, get offline.

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