Social Media and Social Forgiveness

Posted in: Human Rights

Not long ago, I quit social media. This sounds more momentous than it is. I had a Facebook page I never used and a LinkedIn account I never liked. I fled from the squalor of Twitter years ago and don’t really know what Instagram and Snapchat are. Don’t even ask me about Substacks. For me, quitting social media was more like clearing clutter than lopping off a gangrenous limb.

I realize that in today’s world, this marks me as an outsider (as if my approach to the world hadn’t set me apart already). It’s just that for me, an introvert more at ease with animals and books than people and machines, social medial was a dystopian nightmare. Virtually the only time I used it was to link to something I had published elsewhere. A book. An article. An essay. As soon as I pressed send, I felt I had fallen into a Roman coliseum that was infinitely large yet still overcrowded. Where everyone was both gladiator and spectator in an endless contest of self-promotion, and the rules rewarded an especially venomous form of mean-spiritedness and personal attack.

And it wasn’t just my impression. As I suppose everyone has heard by now, the algorithms at the root of social media encourage and reward moral outrage. The reward comes in the form of retweets, likes, and shares, which provide virtual affirmation that the writer is not alone in the universe and that a whole community of like-minded people shares their worldview. It’s intoxicating, apparently. But here’s the kicker: the rewards increase along with the outrage. The more fury, rage, and contempt expressed by the user toward some poor transgressor, the more retweets, likes, and shares they are apt to receive—not because their views are wise or just or healthy, but because that’s how the algorithms work.

But it gets worse. Because humans are tribal, the realization that one has a tribe out there somewhere in the multiverse, just waiting to embrace one’s every angry expression of disgust at someone’s misdeed is not only intoxicating, it’s addictive. At least, it is for some people. When a user’s rage is rewarded, they learn the norms of their online tribe and adhere to them by expressing more outrage. Social media incentivizes fury. And if you suspect this contributes to a coarsening of our political dialogue, you’re right. As Yale social psychologist William Brady observed, “Social media’s incentives are changing the tone of our political conversations online. … [S]ome people learn to express more outrage over time because they are rewarded by the basic design of social media.”

And of course, that “basic design” does not merely allow users to circulate their own thoughts. Social media platforms like Facebook and YouTube, which are the most popular of all, send a carefully curated news feed to users, deliberately exposing them “to confrontational and inflammatory news items that tend to make people more extreme in their views.” This encourages self-segregation, which in turn “increases the distance between groups…, causing more polarization.” For its part, YouTube typically recommends content “that echo[es] the political bias of its viewers…, and feeds them videos containing viewpoints that are more extreme than the ones they currently hold.”

And worst of all, the people who seem to be most affected by all this are the political moderates. Not the extremists on the left and right, who already trade in the most negative language on social media, but the moderates, which “suggests a mechanism for how moderate groups can become politically radicalized over time—the rewards of social media create positive feedback loops that exacerbate outrage.” This according to Molly Crockett, a social psychologist at Princeton University and one of the leading scholars on the outrage-inducing design of social media.

What this means is that, by design, social media is inimical to the idea of a forgiving society. As I have recently described, in a forgiving society “punishment proceeds from the premise that wrongdoers were, are, and will always remain one of us, and that the goal of punishment is not to cast out but to bring back.” In a forgiving society, people are not cast out, and no one is entombed in their past. Yet social media deliberately increases the appeal of demonization and the seduction of hatred. It rewards the impulse to reduce a person to their transgression and cheers on the inclination to imprison them in their past.

We like to pretend we have evolved beyond dehumanization and gratuitous cruelty. No one thinks they are treating another human being as a monster, unworthy of dignity and respect, and permanently beyond change and redemption. Instead, when people engage in precisely that behavior, they think they are acting as self-appointed border patrol agents, zealously protecting the sanctity and purity of a prized group. The group being protected varies with the identity of the agent patrolling the borders, but the behavior is always the same.

A forgiving society needs to interject itself precisely when it is most difficult. It’s the moment when someone has done something awful and border patrol agents have rushed to the scene ready to cast them out. At that instant, two things are about to happen: First, there will be an angry and widespread call to purge the person from membership in the group. Sometimes this is literal and we ship people off to prison, where they are stripped of their rights and dignity; sometimes it is more metaphorical and we ostracize people, treating them like a pariah for violating dearly held social codes.

Some people are quicker to cast out offenders than others, and some people reach it in response to certain transgressions and not others. Folks on the political left, for instance, are more apt to see an existential threat in Derek Chauvin’s knee than people on the political right, while the relation is reversed for violence that erupts in alleged connection to a Black Lives Matter protest. The particulars vary but the call is the same: “cast them out; they are not one of us.” At this stage, social media plays the role of cultural megaphone, amplifying the call and making it nearly impossible to resist.

The second thing that will happen is a strange forgetfulness. When we are not furious with a person, we readily appreciate that their choices are not as free as we hope for them. We understand that society exerts a powerful influence on what people do, narrowing their vision and altering their appraisal of available life choices, sometimes in ways that they only dimly grasp. In fact, we pay attention to structural racism and classism precisely because we recognize the importance of these influences. Structures matter. In the same way, we understand that people are shaped in confounding ways by their past. We all recognize the person who always picks the wrong sort of partner. The folks who foolishly try to follow in a parent’s footsteps. The children who grew up to be as violent as their angry, drunken father. To acknowledge all this is not to diminish personal responsibility for conduct but simply to recognize that human behavior is complex. That’s what makes it human.

But when a person does something horrible—or more precisely, something that seriously offends a group’s sense of what is morally right—the border patrol agents suddenly pretend the offender’s action is the product of unrestricted choice. Structural constraints imposed by an imperfect society no longer exist. Pressures exerted by an inescapable past are immaterial. Everything that makes a person human mysteriously becomes irrelevant. Forces that were once recognized as self-evident are now viewed with anger and suspicion, as though they were summoned in an illegitimate attempt to excuse the inexcusable. In their haste to purge offenders, the border patrol agents seem to forget what, in their quieter moments, they know to be true. Social media reinforces this unnatural forgetfulness, demanding that we ignore what we ordinarily accept as the lesson of universal experience.

If you are with me this far, you begin to understand why I wrote in an earlier essay that creating a forgiving society will be more difficult than you might think. The challenge is that no one thinks they are engaging in the demonization and expulsion at the heart of an unforgiving society. They cloak themselves in moral righteousness, and social media encourages and rewards their sense of blamelessness.

We will not do away with social media, and I don’t think we should. But it doesn’t have to have a design that encourages cruelty and rewards unforgiveness. And as long as it does, we don’t have to be seduced by it. We can leave.

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