In the Wake of Digital Tribalism, Institutions Are More and More Useless

Online media is accelerating our own pitfalls

by Michael Marinaccio

For me, one of the most entertaining aspects of this election is the earth-shattering wrongness exhibited by everyone — pundits, politicos, media. No one saw a Trump victory coming and the signs we did see offered no indication of its remote possibility. Only a few folks, like Liam Donovan, have shown the courage to speak honestly about how wrong we were.

Facebook, a favored scapegoat, has come under fire yet again for deficiencies in their newsfeed algorithm — this time in helping to create Donald Trump:

There’s plenty of blame to go around, but the list of actors has to start with Facebook. And for all its wonders — reaching nearly 2 billion people each month, driving more traffic and attention to news than anything else on earth — it’s also become a single point of failure for civic information.

Could Facebook have created Trump?

Of the victims of 2016, civil discourse and institutions have seen the greatest casualties. Legacy media organizations, newspapers, and once powerful issue advocacy firms have all seen their heyday. In place of these intellectual gatekeepers, we have seen rapid movements towards “tribalism” (a new buzz word) and rampant individualism. In “The Rise of Networked Tribal Politics,” Michael Hendrix argues that “America’s institutional political order has so far been replaced with a far different … more destructive form of politics. Politics is now dominated by individualists who are loyal to tribes more than institutions.”

Online media platforms such as Facebook or Twitter have easily become the symbolic homes for this tribalism, given their empirical, quantifiable nature. “Humans are tribal and derive identity from community first,” says Josh Peterson in a recent discussion. “Online social networks provide a digital topology for this behavior. But it’s still just one part of our social lives. Local offline social networks have just as much influence, if not more so.”

When there is a swing or surge in a topic, we are easily able to measure that change on these channels. However, while “digital topology allows certain interactions and relationships to be measured … that measurement only provides an estimate of the complete picture. The mistake is in believing the estimate reveals the entire pictures,” says Peterson.

True. We often discuss these online communications and social media in the context of mixed use. Something only some people participate in, and only sometimes. But what happens as information speeds up and humans start to normalize and integrate these types of communication into their daily lives? Data already suggests that time spent online is taking up more and more of our day. What happens as our offline lives (led by institutions) take a backseat to online lives (fueled by tribalism)?

Mobile isn’t killing desktop. It’s killing all our free time.

Play this thought game with me, using Kant’s categorical imperative (an unconditional moral obligation that applies to everyone in all circumstances, all the time): What if every single person in the world used one social media platform that allowed them to instantaneously communicate text, photo and video for free all the time; and they used that platform for nearly every thought that popped into their heads.

What would be the effect on politics and institutions?

The answer is straight-forward to me: offline life and interactions with institutions would largely cease to exist. Instead, fickle tribalism would randomly and wildly fluctuate major policy interests like a broken polygraph needle. The whims of the masses would destroy politics because politicians would no longer be able to keep up in any meaningful way. Lawmakers, reacting to culture, would have to accommodate by also shooting from the tribal hip. It would be total chaos all the time.

If this seems like this is already happening, that’s because it is.

Clay Shirky says that online platforms have largely destroyed “the political overton window.” Institutions and elites are no longer able to tailor the framing of the conversation, but instead react to tribal whims however and whenever they spring up. In contrast to interacting in real life, the low cost of adding to the conversation online has broken discourse. There is no topic or taboo too derisive to bring up online. Everything goes.

If Hendrix and Shirky are correct, that means these algorithmic feeds that curate items we want to see are merely coalescing tribes to become stronger and more zealous. See the Arab Spring or the various murders by policemen as examples of this phenomenon causing groups to rise up quickly and violently. Placed into contrived communities where they are forced to exist with others who occupy the same cave or tribe, they can easily be influenced by fake news or ephemeral rage. Here you have, in essence, all of the worst fears imagined by James Madison in Federalist № 10 and none of the material gains.

“La Liberté guidant le peuple” by Eugène Delacroix

Jonathan Haidt, author of The Righteous Mind, says “the Facebook effect isn’t trivial. But it’s catalyzing or amplifying a tendency that was already there. It is accelerating a tendency we already have. The internet is “particularly well suited to our individualist, deconsolidated way of life,” explains Yuval Levin explains in The Fractured Republic. In some respects, the internet embodies the kind of society we are in the process of becoming: it is decentralized, personalized, and individualized. It possesses few large centers of authority and few strong mediating institutions, but many distinct, narrow circles of trust.”

The very tribalism that we have been creating offline for decades is being imitated and accelerated online. Levin echoes Peterson in shifting blame from new media to the human condition: “Indeed, it would be easy to imagine that the internet has created the forces pushing in this direction in our time, because they are now so often most powerfully in evidence in our online lives. But as we have seen, these are forces that have been building for decades. They have merely found a natural home in the new virtual world of the internet.

Indeed, it is wrong to blame any online platform for a particular malice or ignorance in society. Tools are neutral. However, we have to be honest about the social implications of media democratization and the abandonment of the overton window. Due to their own failures, newspapers and print are nearing death. But platforms like Facebook and Twitter can’t just take over a market and surrender traditional media’s gatekeeper responsibility to individuals and algorithms. Someone needs to step up and hold online musings accountable, because the internet certainly won’t do it.

We have for a long time been seeking a great excuse to shed the chains of authority and truth. Online media have merely provided the keys to absolve ourselves once and for all of objectivity in discourse.

In observing this insurgence of individualism and tribalism in our lives, there exist really only two plausible outcomes: mass conversion or an eventual crushing force.

  1. A conversion, while unlikely, would have to take the form of a humble return to institutions and an outright rejection of our individual subjectivity. We would have to concede that our mass communications are both futile and destructive to discourse, and observe that there exists some noble authority from which to glean truth/
  2. It is more likely, though, that we will continue down this path of rampant tribalism and play political musical chairs until there is only one seat left. My greatest fear is that, in this intellectual vacuum, civil order will inevitably break down and extreme force will be the only remedy left.

And as you know, force is not always the kindest form of government.