It’s not our fault, they say. Social media content -- even misinformation or disinformation -- doesn’t radicalize people. It only brings out what’s already there.
Of course it’s not their fault. Nothing ever is. Certainly nothing that could cause accountability, financial culpability, or regulation.
We all know that both nature and nurture influence who we are and how we behave.
Let’s say they’re right. Let’s say that misinformation, disinformation and inflammatory content on social media only bring out what’s already there.
That content still brings it out -- brings out that which might otherwise lie dormant or latent.
This week, The New York Times tackled the question of how Facebook rewarded extremist views, encouraging people sharing those views to double down: “Everyone has some type of thing that gave them a spark. Facebook just so happened to be mine,” said far-right influencer Dominick McGee, known online as Dom Lucre.
Maybe we need to look less at fault and more at phenomena like human behavior: our drives, our impulses, our motivations.
We evolved in a communications context that only allowed us to share our beliefs with individuals or small groups. Our social behavior feedback system was how each of those individuals or small groups responded to our thoughts and ideas.
If I said, “Hey, I’m thinking about joining this cult,” my three closest friends might have responded, “Hey, we think that’s a really bad idea,” and maybe I’d change my mind.
Today, our social behavior feedback system is less about how particular individuals respond and more about how many individuals respond.
Today, if I say, “Hey, I’m thinking about joining this cult,” my three closest friends might be utterly drowned out by thousands of likes from members of the cult.
The imbalance might cause me to feel a significantly greater sense of belonging with the cult members, who are cheering me on, than with my closest friends, who are telling me I’m wrong.
The sense of rightness associated with joining the cult will be nearly insurmountable.
Back to the Times: “‘My entire family disowns me now. Especially after D.C.,’ [Dom Lucre] told his chat group. ‘The fact they know that I’m one of the people that went to Capitol Hill? Yeah, I’m completely banned from my family, if that’s even possible.’
“But he has no plans to stop posting. If anything, his ambitions have grown. He said one day he’d like to run for the Senate.”
That ambition is likely to get thousands of likes.
To understand this viscerally, we only need to look within ourselves. This week, Reverend Frank Ritchie, one of the most compassionate souls ever to tweet a tweet, shared the following:“Finally watched the film about Mr. Rogers. It reminded me of the power of gentleness and kindness. It also reminded of who I want to be, but also what I have given into recently... so I want to say sorry for some of my tweets today…
“Today I saw people that I profoundly disagree with, but rather than hearing and offering mere disagreement, I mocked. I mocked people who obviously feel disconnected and frustrated. My mockery achieves nothing except furthering division…
“I believe in a world where we can profoundly disagree but still see the humanity in each other. I didn’t live up to that today. So to those I mocked - you may not have seen my tweets or this, but I am sorry. I still disagree, but I believe in a better way to disagree.”
As someone guilty many times over of allowing myself the luxury of mockery, I replied: “I feel this. The snark of Twitter is so seductive.”
It is so seductive. It’s not Twitter’s fault that snark lies within me, waiting to be activated. But we must recognize the phenomenon: Social media supplies the conditions that activate the snark within us, the animosity within us, the polarization within us, the radicalization within us.
Social media is beautifully designed to amplify the lesser angels of our nature. It would be disingenuous to pretend otherwise.
We cannot afford to be disingenuous.