You’ve no doubt noticed a change in your Facebook and Twitter feeds since the election. Everyone, it seems, now has strong political opinions and a burning desire to share them. And not just share, but rant. And not just rant, but argue and insult and denigrate. The tone on social media has taken a sinister turn among friends and strangers alike, which should serve as a timely reminder of an old idea: human nature is real and unchanging, and it’s not pretty.
The trend was noticeable during the election, with friends and family members unfriending and blocking each other over political disagreements. But since Donald Trump’s victory and his turbulent first weeks in office, squabbling on social media has become commonplace. In December, BuzzFeed even published step-by-step instructions on how to delete Facebook friends who supported Trump. One poll found 30 percent of Democratic women had blocked or unfriended someone because of what they posted about politics.
This wasn’t what the architects of social media had in mind when they devised their platforms. When Facebook went public in 2012, Mark Zuckerberg published a letter explaining the purpose of his company to potential investors.
“At Facebook, we build tools to help people connect with the people they want and share what they want, and by doing this we are extending people’s capacity to build and maintain relationships,” he wrote. The primary goal wasn’t just to make money, but to serve a social mission: “Facebook exists to make the world more open and connected, and not just to build a company.”
One can find this kind of language throughout Silicon Valley. Social media is supposed to bring people together from all over the world, broaden our horizons and create a more integrated, diverse, and inclusive society. If intolerance comes from ignorance, all that’s needed is exposure to different ideas and people. It likely never occurred to Zuckerberg that connecting people in this way wouldn’t necessarily foster understanding and empathy, but could instead breed hatred and contempt.
The Old Empires Actively Managed Different Groups
But it should have occurred to him. History, even very recent history, suggests that diversity doesn’t always produce comity between different groups. More often, it produces anger or isolation—or both. One of the great insights from Robert Putnam’s 2000 book, “Bowling Alone,” is that as American society became more diverse, it became more fractured. The dramatic decline in voluntary associations over the past 40 years, from local chapters of the NAACP to the Charity League of Dallas, went hand-in-hand with rising diversity in America. We didn’t respond by opening our minds, but by withdrawing.
Why? Because left to their own devices, most people don’t choose to associate with people who are very different from them. The great multiethnic empires of Europe understood this, which is why they were savvy about keeping various groups separated to a large extent. It’s also why, on the outbreak of World War I, the Austro-Hungarian Empire had more difficulty mobilizing than France, which was more homogenous. The ethnic tensions that in peacetime helped hold the Hapsburg empire together—partly by Vienna playing rival ethnic groups off one another—nearly hobbled it during wartime.
When the old empires crumbled at the end of the war, some European intellectuals hoped that fledgling democracies would bring stability to Europe and calm simmering national and ethnic resentments. In the 1930s, Stephen Zweig, one of the most popular writers in Europe at the time, dreamed of a borderless continent that would be a civilizing force for the entire world. He envisioned an international university with campuses in all of Europe’s major capitals and an exchange program that would expose young people to other cultures and religions, broadening their horizons.
It didn’t happen. Even as Zweig dreamed of a multicultural Europe, the world was falling into war, driven by fascist regimes that had no use for other races and cultures. Zweig and his wife ultimately despaired, committing suicide in New York in 1942, a few weeks after Hitler threatened the Jews of the world with annihilation.
America Mitigated Differences Through Democracy
It should go without saying—sadly, in today’s charged climate it doesn’t—that this isn’t an argument for fascism or segregation. Not at all. Rather, it’s a reminder that human beings are fallen creatures with a penchant for violence and a general aversion to people who are different from them. Unless we have some compelling reason, we’re not inclined to get along.
For the technologists who dreamed up social media, and indeed for all progressives, this is not the lesson they take from history. They assume that human societies, like biological systems, derive strength through diversity. All the great empires were delightfully diverse at the height of their flourishing, weren’t they? Look at Muslim Spain in medieval times, when Muslims and Jews and Christians lived in harmony! Look at the wondrous variety of ancient Rome!
As nice as all this sounds, most such historical examples do not stand up to close scrutiny. The great exception is America, where the very structure of our government was a radical departure from all previous societies. We dealt with diversity not by actively managing it, as the European empires did, but by mitigating our differences through the mechanisms of democracy.
By positing that everyone is equal, then gradually building a political order that enshrined that equality in law, Americans created a true melting pot in which similarities were more important—and more potent—than differences. Unlike the post-war democracies of Europe, which were unable to mitigate the passions of nationalism, American democracy blunted the sharp edges of our differences and nurtured a tradition of assimilating immigrants.
In all this, the media played an important role. General interest newspapers fostered equality but also similarity; everyone read the same stories and bulletins under the assumption that certain concerns were everyone’s business. Newspapers were the original and authentic social media. They actually did what Zuckerberg and Silicon Valley profess to do—they brought people together, they broadened horizons.
Social Media Breeds Anger
Social media in the Trump era, by contrast, isn’t doing that. The way we use Facebook and Twitter increasingly divides us according to our politics. So far from helping to build and maintain relationships, as Zuckerberg envisioned, social media is encouraging tribalism and enmity, allowing us to tune out or attack those with whom we disagree in exchange for a cheap and short-lived catharsis.
It’s not just because of Trump or the 2016 election. A 2013 study of Weibo, a Twitter-like service in China, found the most prevalent emotion in the network, and the one most likely to spread quickly and broadly, was not joy or sorrow but anger.
That might come as a surprise to Zuckerberg and his milieu, but it should not surprise students of human nature. In one of his sonnets, C.S. Lewis wrote, “Anger’s the anaesthetic of the mind, / It does men good, it fumes away their grief.” Especially in times of stress and strife, we lash out in anger at those with whom we disagree. Today, from the comfort of our computers and smartphones, venting on social media can even be a form of cheap entertainment. But it comes at a price.
Social media firms seem blissfully unaware. Earlier this month, Meetup notified its members that it was plunging into political activism. “Before today, our company had never taken a partisan stance. It’s not a decision we take lightly,” Meetup wrote in a post to its users on Medium. “But after Donald Trump’s order to block people on the basis of nationality and religion, a line had been crossed.” In response, the company created more than 1,000 #Resist Meetup groups nationwide, “to act as local hubs for actions on behalf of democracy, equality, human rights, social justice, and sustainability.”
The people who run Meetup, Facebook, and Twitter no doubt think they’re fostering democracy by such actions, and in a narrow sense perhaps they are. But they’re forgetting the danger that lurks in exploiting and exacerbating our divisions: we’re only human, after all, and most of the time we tend to tear each other apart.