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.
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 and resist tribalism? 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 and gives his best tips for how to avoid a civil war.
This interview was filmed before the 2020 presidential election. Watch the entire conversation above or read an extract from the conversation below. It has been lightly edited for brevity and clarity.
Emma Varvaloucas: 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?
Robert Wright (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.
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.
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.
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.