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Views from the Right column: The costs of participation

Social media can be as much of a curse as a blessing.

While Google opens up worlds of information to global citizens, it does so for a price, invading privacy that Americans have long cherished and protected. The company shares personal information with others who don't have users' best interests at heart. It also manipulates what we can and can't see. Information balance, accuracy and truth can be questionable. Primary information sources (newspapers, magazines, blogs) accept and post comments selectively or not at all.

Twitter allows conversations, but only in 140 characters. Following topical threads takes time. The platform provides a deceptive amount of anonymity, inconsistent censoring, and masked identities, all of which have unleashed despicable human behavior. The thrill of attack and retreat, comparable to cyber warfare, easily replaces decorum, sensitivity and reason.

Some Twitter users think celebrity and reporter posts are accurate. They would be wrong. Opinion is just that. Opinion. Jumping into a hate fray wastes time and energy. If not removed quickly, messages can leave long, hideous trails handy for law enforcement and others. Accounts can be blocked or abandoned.

Facebook, once intended to be a vehicle for sharing news with friends and loved ones, has expanded into another public information platform. Memes—short, clever statements of questionable truth—are popular, with some shared enough to roam the planet for years. Once again, user-controlled privacy is bogus, with personal information now mined, tracked and used by marketers, and governments, for their own purposes. To assume we have posting privacy is foolish.

Fake accounts proliferate on Facebook. Trolls find bombing posts with crude language, hatred, and threats entertaining, turning the platform upside down. The company arbitrarily bans only the posts and users with bias and without notice or explanation. Its People You May Know feature mines the identities of a user's accepted "friends," and then, without permission, recommends them to every other friend and friend of a friend. So much for privacy.

So why are we captive to digital communications? Simply, as Dr. Seuss once wrote, "Oh the places you'll go! There is fun to be done! There are points to be scored. There are games to be won." They allow us unlimited access to gaming and data. We can open up ourselves to strangers and their posts for learning and connection. We can align with groups we didn't know existed, gaining strength from perceived safety in numbers and communicating with like minds.

But we can also dive into areas better avoided, inviting unsolicited deception and brutal honesty. Online virtue signaling, rage, condemnation, bullying and stalking spread far and wide. Social media's dark sides allow predators to access preteens and teens through almost any platform. Those same young people can access age inappropriate online content. Popular platforms increase opportunities to mercilessly bully classmates. Such reach brings real, long lasting cultural consequences.

Only individuals can determine which media are worth investments of time and engagement. Many of us accept the worst in exchange for the best. America has thrived with freedom of speech, press and association. But of what value are misinformation, deliberate fake news, verbal attacks and lack of accountability? Do social media make us better citizens or enhance our relationships? Some cultural analysts link them to societal degradation. Too many of us are avoiding face-to-face communications.

As long as we agree to support what social media offer us and our children, we risk holding hands with the devil. Is government regulation called for? Many of us think not. Instead, the better, most sane decision when faced with harm caused by unregulated content, unsupervised access, and obsessive usage is permanent disengagement and long walks in the woods.