Volcanoes are erupting in The Philippines, but on-fire Australia received some welcome rain. The Iran war cries have been called off and The Donald’s military powers are about to be hamstrung by the Senate. Meanwhile, his impeachment trial is starting, and we’re all on Twitter for a front-row seat.
We Are the Outrage Machine
Featuring Robert Wright
It’s no secret that social media is politically divisive. What we may not be as aware of is how our own behavior feeds into a positive feedback loop that leaves both sides progressively more outraged and more extreme in their beliefs. What should we be aware of before we like, share, and react to politically inflammatory content online? What techniques do we have at our disposal to improve our online behavior? The Progress Network Member Robert Wright, president of the Nonzero Foundation and a longtime journalist who writes about science, history, politics, and religion, discusses this phenomenon with The Progress Network executive director Emma Varvaloucas and gives his best tips for how to avoid a civil war.
This conversation was recorded before the 2020 presidential election.
Prefer to read? Check out the Audio Transcript
Emma Varvaloucas (EV): I’m Emma Varvaloucas. I’m the executive director of The Progress Network. We’re bringing together constructive public voices. You can find out more about us at theprogressnetwork.org. And since we’re going to be talking about, among other things, social media today, you can also find us on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and see what we have to say on those channels.
So today I’m with Robert Wright. He’s a Progress Network member author, and writer. He’s written several books, most recently “Why Buddhism Is True.” He runs the Nonzero Foundation and writes the Nonzero Newsletter, which I highly recommend signing up for. And he also runs Bloggingheads.tv and MeaningofLife.tvwhere he and other contributors talk politics, foreign affairs, philosophy, spirituality. It’s really sort of an idea paradise. So I also recommend checking that out.
So, Bob, welcome. Thanks for being with us.
Robert Wright (RW): Well, thanks for having me.
EV: Yeah. So, you know, we’re obviously in this very intense political moment intense political few years. And you’ve been talking since at least 2016, if not, prior to that about tribalism specifically about tribalism on social media. So I want to talk about that problem. And then we’re also going to talk about solutions. Because I really want people to get an idea of how they can effect change for this in their own behavior, in their own lives.
So to start with a problem, you wrote an article recently for your newsletter called “Tips for Avoiding a Civil War,” which I really, really, really liked shared—very helpful for people. And in that, you laid out the problem “intertribal positive feedback cycle.” What does that mean and why do you think it’s important enough to write about?
RW: Well, you know, it starts with I guess two technological facts. One is that smartphone cameras are increasingly pervasive. The other is that social media allows you to get any image, including any video snippet, to anyone who would be interested in it, and increasingly to the people who are most interested in it and most emotionally intense in their reactions to it. So basically what you get is, if you think of the current kind of political alignment as two tribes, pro-Trump and anti-Trump, each tribe on social media tends to see the worst behavior of the other tribe. So if somebody with a MAGA hat is refusing to wear a face mask in a supermarket and throwing a fit and seeming irrational, that stands a pretty good chance of being captured on video and then being spread through social media to you know, anti-Trumpers, who are going to be most outraged by it.
You know, you saw this in a slightly different way during the protests. People on the left tended to see the worst instances of police brutality in response to the protests. People on the right tended to see the most unruly, law-breaking protesters. And you know, it’s kind of natural to kind of assume, I mean, especially if you’re already unfavorably disposed toward the other tribe, which is our predicament today you are inclined to think of the horribly behaving person you’re seeing from the other tribe as typical of that tribe, or at least as more typical than they actually are.
EV: Are we sure they’re not typical?
RW: I think I can say in the case of protesters smashing windows, they’re not typical, or there would be more broken windows. We can say in the case of police seeming to kind of try to like push forward with a car, to the point of running over a protester, that’s not typical. I mean, I think we probably would’ve seen it every time that happened, and I saw it once or twice. So yeah, I mean, we don’t know exactly how typical these things are or, you know, how representative the sentiments they embody are. I mean, for example, there is a lot of resistance to wearing masks out there. I don’t think a ton. But in any event even if you look at those people very few of them are going to just throw a fit in a supermarket, right? I think that’s pretty atypical behavior.
So the antipathy just gets amped up and up and up and up. The more evidence you see that seems to justify hating the other side the more people in your own tribe are going to behave in ways that provoke hatred, right? Because they’re going to get amped up and a few of them are going to misbehave, and so on. So that’s what I meant by kind of a positive feedback cycle.
EV: Hmm. And just to clarify for people, I mean, we’re not talking about video footage that really needs to be seen. I mean, you know, George Floyd comes to mind. It was recorded. People saw what happened. We’re not talking about that. We’re talking about something that’s a little bit different, right?
RW: Yeah, well, I think there are a lot of upsides to the pervasiveness of video including exposing true cases of horrible behavior by police. I mean, I do think we still have to be careful in not assuming that any given act by any given police officer is representative of police officers broadly. But it’s definitely a blessing in that regard, that police have more trouble now getting away with brutality than they did. And believe me, it’s a lot harder for them now than it was 20 or 30 years ago. That’s a good thing. There are a lot of upsides. And I’m not, like, a Luddite. I’m not here to tell you that, on balance, this technological environment is worse than the one I grew up with, although I do get nostalgic at times, but I definitely see real downsides to the old environment. I’m just saying that this particular dynamic I’ve tried to highlight is negative in ways that are worth keeping in mind.
EV: Yeah, I mean, you know, it’s a catchy title, the article that I mentioned, “Tips for Avoiding a Civil War,” but do you really think that that’s the direction that we’re heading in with this positive feedback cycle?
RW: I think… I mean, first of all, I don’t think we would be likely to see a classic civil war of kind of a bunch of states against a bunch of other states. Because for one thing, red state versus blue state is a huge oversimplification. Most red states are at least 35% blue, most blue cities are at least 35% red. The split is more of an urban–rural, or urban small town–urban-rural split than really a red state–blue state split. But I do think… If the question is, “Could you have a level of civil conflict, including a fair amount of killing, like some killing every day, and ongoing killing that’s way worse than anything in my lifetime?” I think the answer is yes. I think probably it won’t happen, but I think kind of super-bad outcomes are worth worrying about, even if they’re not probable. Low-Probability, catastrophic events are worth worrying about. And so, you know, that’s why I just think it’s worthyou know, calling attention to the way we can all unwittingly become part of the problem just by reacting the way humans normally react to things.
EV: And in the context of social media, when you say react, I mean, we’re literally talking about liking it, sharing it, commenting, like, “Fuck those guys,” or whatever it is that you might comment or say. You know, “so typical of a cop,” or “so typical of a Black Lives Matter person,” or whatever it may be. Which brings me to the solutions part. Because, you know, we sometimes talk about politics as though they’re a force that’s outside of our control. Similarly, when we talk about the problems with social media, it can feel like we’re not actively contributing to them when maybe we are. What kind of behavior can we instill in ourselves so that we can help ameliorate these problems rather than add to them?
RW: For starters, mindfulness. It doesn’t have to involve mindfulness meditation, which I’m an advocate of. But, at a minimum, I’d suggest that when you’re on social media, before you retweet something or like something, or before you weigh in and comment on something—especially before you comment antagonistically toward someone—pause and try to reflect on the feelings that are motivating the temptation to retweet, to share, to like. Ask yourself if they’re feelings that you should trust. If you see a video of a person in a MAGA hat refusing to wear a mask and freaking out in a supermarket, and you think, “Yeah, those assholes, let’s show the world what assholes they are,” I’d be suspicious of that. I’d say, “Wait a second. How many of them actually are like that? And is it productive? What’s going to happen if I share this?” Even if I am conscious that this is not highly typical behavior [of MAGA hat wearers]: if I share it, lots of people will see it, and some of them will think it is highly typical behavior. So you have to think about the larger dynamic you’re feeding into. Reflect on the feelings that are motivating you, and ask yourself if the feelings themselves are really cause to do what they’re telling you to do. My view is that you should only do things that make sense. I don’t mean that you can afford to govern your whole life reflecting on every sandwich before you eat it. But basically, just try to be calm and circumspect and rational, and don’t make the problem worse. And that’s in the case of your individual reaction to something on social media.
EV: What do you think about the argument that it’s productive to share some issues on social media to show people that they are, indeed, issues?
RW: Sometimes I think it is [productive]. I think a good example of a tough case is, say, violence during protests by either side. On the one hand, people associated with the protest who are destroying property or engaging in violence; on the other hand, maybe Trump supporters who are armed and marching menacingly toward a protest. We need to know that those things are happening. And the kind of question I ask in situations like that is, “Is there any danger in the current environment of an appreciable number of people not knowing that this is happening?” Usually, the answer is no with things like this, given the current environment. So I usually just hold off. I’m not saying I’m doing a whole lot of good by holding off, though. In terms of actually doing good, I am prouder of myself if I do something like criticize a major social media potentate with a lot of followers. They’re kind of like grifters. They’re exploiting the current emotional environment to amass followers. Sometimes they’ll say things like, “typical Trump supporter,” when that’s just clearly not true. Then, I like to weigh in and say, “This is obviously not a typical Trump supporter, and it is not productive to say it is.” Another case of this is criticizing people that are roughly on my side of the political spectrum, at least in the sense of being left of center. When I saw videos of protesters presumed to be associated with Black Lives Matter harassing diners or demanding that diners hold up their hands in support of something or other—a) I don’t approve of coercing people into publicly expressing opinions, and b) I think this kind of thing just helps Trump. It fits right into his narrative. So I like to point out that kind of thing. I’ll say, “This is just a gift to Trump when you do this.” And look, I don’t have enough media clout to on any given day make the difference between the life of the republic and the death of the republic. But I think we all have to take the influence that we have seriously. That’s the way we conduct our lives generally, right? If you see somebody you can help who is suffering—it may only be one person, and if you were Bill Gates, it would seem trivial because he can help millions—but you still help them. Because that’s what you can do.
EV: It sounds like what you’re advocating for is a collective pause. It reminds me of a Buddhist teacher who taught something called the third-moment method. The way he explained it was, if someone is pissing you off, you take three moments before you react. And this seems like that, plus a dose of critical thought.
RW: Yes, it’s just “pause and reflect.” It’s not easy, though. And that’s partly because some of these emotions are so subtle. Sometimes it’s just flat out, “I hate that guy.” But other times the feeling is more like “This is the right thing to do. That was bad behavior. I’m bringing it to light. I am serving justice.” And you need to ask yourself more questions before you can come anywhere near being sure that what you’re doing is for the greater good. If you do practice mindfulness meditation, and it works for you, you can get better at this: better at even detecting some of the subtler emotions and better at not following them. They take effect fast and motivate your behavior within a very narrow timeframe. And the more you’re in the practice of being mindful, the easier it will be to recognize that a given decision or thought or perception is being colored, if not governed, by a feeling.
EV: Where do you see misinformation fitting into this? I don’t engage very much politically online . . .
RW: Very wise. You’re wise beyond your years. . . . But I do try to fact-check people, because I think that, if you’re going to hold political views, you should at least have the correct facts. But I also see myself being a bit trigger-happy and fact-checking the other side more than my side, because I don’t want to seem like I’m unsupportive. So it’s a dual question: how do you see misinformation fitting into this, and how do you push back against the feeling that you’re doing something bad to your tribe if you make a critical statement or fact check? RW: As for misinformation, I think one of the main things spreading it is often the cognitive bias known as confirmation bias, which means that we are naturally attracted to information that seems to confirm our preexisting worldview. We are less likely to seize on facts and even averse to facts that seem to contradict our worldview. It’s a natural human tendency. And one of the insights from Buddhism that I think modern psychology has corroborated is how finely feelings are intertwined with thoughts and perceptions. If you pay close attention to your behavior on social media, you’ll see that a feeling is driving confirmation bias. If you see a fact and think, “That confirms what I’ve been saying,” you feel like you’re falling in love with it. You have a positive feeling toward it. You thirst for it. You cling to it. It’s an infrastructure of feelings. It feels good. And if you see information that seems at odds with your worldview, it will make you feel uncomfortable, and you’ll start searching for reasons not to believe it, searching for reasons to discredit it—which may exist; that’s certainly possible. But we tend to exaggerate them, just as we are uncritical when we see information that supports our worldview. So misinformation, too, is a problem that can be addressed somewhat through mindfulness, or just through pausing and reflecting. Now that leads to something related to your other question, which is, “But if my tribe does this and the other one doesn’t, isn’t that like unilateral disarmament?” That’s a tough question. First of all, there is the argument that, in the long run, truth is a good thing and misinformation and disinformation are not. But it’s also true that, given the current political polarization, there’s a separate reason to try to fight misinformation, which is that, often, when your tribe is spreading the misinformation and clinging to it, you’re ultimately going to reinforce the narrative of the other tribe. Every time the anti-Trump side takes something Trump says that’s kind of ambiguous, and on close examination doesn’t justify the worst reading of it—every time they take something like that and do the worst reading of it, and spread that, if you look at the social media of the Trump side, they’re doing the close reading of it, and giving you reasons to say, “Once again, those anti-Trumpers are lying about us.” So fairly often, unilateral disarmament, so to speak in—in the sense of fighting the misinformation spreading on your side—can actually be good for your side.
EV: Okay. And what about that other question? Is it just coming down to being a little bit brave in pushing back against your own side, when you see an error or something you were talking about before, where it doesn’t match your values? You mentioned protesters talking about murdering cops in your article.
RW: Yeah, there was a case in DC, and some speaker—again, it was, I guess this was a BLM protest—some speaker was going likeyou know… “it’s Time to start killing cops.” He had the microphone. He wasn’t getting a very favorable reception, but he had the microphone. And yeah, I think that kind of thing should absolutely be denounced. I don’t think it takes as much courage to denounce that as it does to denounce some other things. But again, you know, that’s a case… Whenever you can accurately point out that something someone’s doing probably is helping the other side, you know, reinforcing their caricature of your side, I think that’s a good way to put it to people. Now, it’s also, I just think, morally wrong to kill people, including police, and that’s a fine thing to say, too. But you know, the broader question, does it take courage to push back against your own tribe? It does. And I often find it lacking in myself. I often don’t push back when I should. I really don’t like people hating me.
EV: Well, yeah. Who does?
RW: Who does? And it seems to come so fast and so intensely on social media. Now, as we all spend more years on social media, I think it’s easier to get some perspective. Like, I used to be super sensitive to what commenters said when I first started doing online videos like 15 years ago, and now I just don’t… It barely touches me. And I think maybe we’re all growing a thicker skin in that regard, or can try to. But I think, you know, the fear is something you need to fight in that case.
EV: Yeah. And like you were saying, approaching it with a little bit more of a cool head. Because I know from myself and others, like, when I do decide to engage politically on social media, it does end up with this, like, stomach turning, heart beating; it just feels really icky.
RW: Now, again, that’s a case where, in principle, mindfulness meditation could help you deal with that. Maybe even overcome it. But it’s absolutely natural for it to be an issue.
EV: Yeah. And I wanted to say, too, so, you know, we’re filming this before the election. This might come out after the election. I mean, is this going to, poof, disappear if Biden wins? Is this suddenly, like, we don’t need to worry about this anymore?
RW: No, I don’t think so. I think you know, the partisan polarization had been growing for some time before Trump. And some of the themes, you know, the idea that—some of Trump’s themes—that liberals are snooty, coastal elites who don’t care about common Americans, I was hearing those 30 years ago from Republicans like Dan Quayle. And probably Newt Gingrich. And Democrats have often been irresponsible. The problem has been getting worse and worse. I don’t think it’s going to go away overnight. I think it has been in some ways intensified by social media. I hope we’ll get better at figuring out how to deal with social media, in some cases, maybe even govern them or at least develop new norms that help us deal with them. But I don’t think it’s going away, especially since, you know, Trump, as of now, as we tape this, Trump is laying the groundwork to call any loss by him illegitimate and rigged, a rigged election and all that. And he’s not going away. Even if he losesI don’t think he’s going to get off of Twitter.
EV: Right. Yeah.
RW: I do think the good thing is it will be much easier if he’s no longer president for the other side to resist his bait. We just won’t care as much. And I think even, this may become explicit. I suspect that, if he loses, the word will go out on social media, and there will be something like agreement by Progressives. I think that’s at least a possibility. Like, just, we’re better off ignoring him, unless he crosses a whole new line. And he’s crossed so many now, you know, how likely is that?
EV: One thing I wanted to say is that you were talking about, “maybe we’ll get used to social media and some norms will come into play, maybe they’ll be a little bit more regulated.” Maybe I’m overly optimistic, but I feel like I do see some signs of at least attempts by social media organizations to govern the field of chaos a little bit, when before there was absolutely nothing. And it’s certainly not great now, but it does seem to be a little bit like we’re ever so slowly starting to turn around on that a little bit.
RW: The social media companies are doing some things, but I think what they’re not doing is contemplating any actual sacrifice of revenue, at least in insignificant degree, by which I mean, you know, if you ask, “why do the algorithms drive some of this tribalization?” It’s because the algorithms maximize engagement. They want to keep me online, keep me clicking, re-tweeting, sharing. And if your algorithm is designed to do that and that alone, without constraint, it is going to appeal to people’s emotions. And that, especially in the current political environment, is going to include a lot of unproductive and even counterproductive emotions. And you know, at a minimum, what I would like to see is algorithm transparency. That is to say, just a law. I mean, we sometimes forget, we actually have the power to regulate corporations. Just a law that dictates that they show us all the code.
And then create an API… What it would allow is third-party companies… Like, see, what I would like to have is, like dials, to just be able to have little slider bars on my screen on Twitter. Like, say I want to see less stuff that’ll politically outrage me, or I want to see less violence, or I want to follow fewer people like this. It could go along any number of dimensions. But the point is, what should be possible is for third-party software companies to create a dashboard like that. And then there would be competing dashboards. And at least give us the power to fiddle with the algorithm. Why shouldn’t we have that power? Now, that doesn’t mean that everyone would use it wisely. Maybe a few people would say “I’m going to get more revved up and angry than I am.” But I don’t think so. And I think we have a right to know what’s in the algorithms. Not that just seeing the code would give many of us much of a clue.
EV: But people would translate it for those of us that…
RW: They’d translate it. And moreover, the people who took advantage of the API to build the software, the dashboards, would be allowing us to make practical use of the transparency of the algorithm in ways we see fit.
EV: I think that’s great. I think there needs to be bigger solutions. And in the meantime, this is why we were talking about what we were talking about today, what you can do just as a regular Joe Schmoe, while we wait for the benevolent gods of Twitter and Facebook and so on to be a little bit more publicly conscious in the way that they run things. Well, that’s it for me, Bob. Do you have any other thoughts running through your mind that you’d like to share about this?
RW: The only other thing I’d encourage people to resist is engaging with people from the other tribe antagonistically. I think you can do a real service if you engage with best intentions, honestly trying to understand where they come from and what their perspective is. Because what that can do is lead at least one person in the other tribe to think, “I guess they’re not all assholes over there.” And then that’s progress.
EV: Which does require the assumption that you go into that interaction not assuming that the other person you’re talking to is an asshole, which seems hard these days.
RW: Right. Exactly. Assume the best. You may be wrong. They may be an asshole. But you have to go in there with the intention of, even if they act like an asshole, not responding in kind, I mean, it’s just hard to imagine what actual good comes of that. I mean, you just make them madder, and how mad they are is already part of the problem.
EV: Yeah. It’s a call to be bigger than our own emotions.
EV: Yeah. All right, Bob, thank you so much for your time. I really appreciate it.
RW: Thank you.
Meet the Hosts