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If it seems to you that America has become a much angrier nation recently, you’re not mistaken. By just about any yardstick, our nation is more divided and more polarized than at any time in recent memory. So, perhaps not surprisingly, CBS News and “60 Minutes” recently ran a tremendously informative segment called “Angry in America.” It focused first and foremost on how social media is making us an angrier society.
How social media is polarizing America
As “60 Minutes” put it, the big social media companies in Silicon Valley are generating billions of dollars in profit by making us angry. The very essence of their business models is to make people want to engage on their platforms. Anger is a very useful tool for them. In a rising cacophony of angry voices, the only way to stand out from the pack is to be as extreme as possible. In short, your best chance of going viral these days is by being as argumentative, controversial and incendiary as possible.
To illustrate this point, Tristan Harris, a technologist ethicist who appeared in Netflix’s “The Social Dilemma,” analyzed how different forms of content performed on social media. Straight news pieces performed the worst. Nobody was interested in sharing this with their friends. However, you could almost automatically guarantee that the piece of content would be shared if it seemed to attack one’s opponents. In one specific example, a piece of content from the Far Right got shared far and wide when it called people on the Far Left “dumbasses.” And a piece of content from the Far Left got shared far and wide when it called people on the Far Right “traitors.” So you can see what we’re dealing with here. The days of civil discourse are long over.
The disappearing middle
The “60 Minutes” segment came to the conclusion that the Far Right and the Far Left are monopolizing social media these days. They might be relatively small in size, but they have a disproportionate impact on civil discourse. Put another way, the middle is disappearing. Normal, everyday people are afraid to challenge the narratives coming from both sides. They are intimidated, afraid of controversy, and unwilling to mix it up online.
This is the exact opposite of what American society should be. Instead of being a civil society, America is morphing into a society where the rabble-rousing mobs rule. Instead of fire and pitchforks, they have Facebook and Twitter. These mobs are using their own extremism to dominate online speech, and the big social media platforms are encouraging them. The big social media platforms are focused on what they call “engagement,” and the easiest way to promote this engagement is by getting as many people as angry as possible. When you put out a tweet, the Twitter algorithm really wants you to make that tweet as nasty, aggressive and polarizing as possible.
What do we do now?
Faced with this backdrop, what can we possibly do to save American society? The easiest solution, of course, is to get the U.S. government involved. More rules, more regulations, more fines, more oversight, more paperwork. As Tristan Harris in the “60 Minutes” segment opined, the only way to get Facebook and Twitter to change is by forcing them to. And that means bringing all the bad guys to justice in the court of law. But even that might not work. The real solution is to help everyone who uses social media to stop falling into the trap that the social media companies are setting for us.
It’s similar to the War on Drugs. You can either go after the supply, by going after the cartels and stopping drugs from crossing our border in the first place. Or, you can go after demand, by convincing Americans that they don’t need drugs to lead a better life and showing them the ill effects of using drugs. Think of Twitter and Facebook as the evil cartels. It’s going to be hard to bring them to justice.
Unfortunately, there might not be a quick, easy path to making social media in America less polarizing. Hopefully, there will be a brief reprieve after the midterm elections after so much nastiness. But just wait until things get really out of control headed into the 2024 presidential election.