Social-media anger is a feature, not a bug

We need to slow down before we can find common ground.

Rob Howard
Sep 6, 2018 · 8 min read

Not long ago, Americans woke up with the worst social media hangover in the history of civilization. Even if you hadn’t jumped into the fray yourself, you probably saw posts like these:

And, if you’re being honest, you probably took a few of those friends up on their challenge. So did I.

As I sought an escape from the vortex of social media and the non-stop news cycle, I started to ask myself how we got here. Every online interaction has the potential to devolve into a knock-down, drag-out fight that more closely resembles a dysfunctional family Thanksgiving than reasonable discourse among self-professed friends. Whether you’re a staunch progressive or a moderate Republican, you probably have a smaller social network than you did last year.

The 2016 election and its aftermath have been vicious and divisive — but that is the result, not the cause, of a larger problem.

The Internet has barraged our brains with an unprecedented amount of information.

We simply cannot neurologically handle infinitely scrolling news feeds, 24-hour tweeting and the constant stimulation of non-stop news. The natural response to information overload is political polarization. We seek a filter because our brains can’t process everything, and we end up in the safety of our echo chambers.

In a way, it’s a simple fight-or-flight response. Our brains receive so much stimulation that they perceive it as a threat rather than a valuable, educational tool. Then there are two choices:

  • Fight it out by aggressively arguing about that information — thus the angry comments and social media wars.
  • Flee from the threat by blocking the information that pisses you off the most, retreating into the comfort of a political echo chamber.

Whichever path you choose, your natural neurological response produces increased political polarization — that is, the appearance that we completely disagree, because we simply can’t process all the information that’s out there in order to make a reasonable decision. Rather than a spectrum of options, we see a false, binary choice between red and blue.

Polarization is increasing because the Internet has hijacked our brains.

Let’s step back for a moment and quantify what I mean by political polarization. It’s easy to conjure anecdotes about friends who’ve experienced political anger and aggression online, or those who have cut people off as a result of a disagreement. The same phenomenon appears to be affecting voting at a large scale.

Landslide Counties, according to a New York Times analysis

One way to track polarization is to look at “landslide counties,” where one presidential candidate beat the other by 20 percentage points or more (that is, 60–40 splits and up). In 1992, 38 percent of American counties fit that bill. In 2012, it was 50 percent, and in 2016 it rose to 60 percent.

Regardless of which way these counties swing, their prevalence is in part a reflection of echo-chamber behavior at a geographic scale. We seek in our personal lives and our neighbors the same comfortable echo chamber that we create online every time we click “Unfriend.”

If you chart the growth of landslide counties, it maps perfectly with the rise of the Internet. From 1997 to 2014, Internet usage among people in developed countries rose from 11 percent to 78 percent. In 2014, we transferred 11,000 times more data over the Internet than in 1997. (Here are the stats from Wikipedia on Internet users and data transfer.)

It’s no secret the Internet has taken over our lives, and that this change corresponds with an increase in polarization and vitriol among everyday citizens in American politics. Now, let’s dig into why these are more than just two isolated trends that happen to coincide — and why I believe the way we disseminate information online is deepening our political divide.

The Internet has eliminated all physical limitations on information.

With the exception of a few cents worth of bandwidth here and there, it’s effectively free to share information online — whether it’s to dozens of people or hundreds of thousands.

This is a huge shift from print- and television-based media. When you’re paying for every square inch of newsprint or every second of finite airtime, that scarcity creates a natural filter that forces useful, legitimate information to rise to the top. This filter is not perfect, of course, but as a general rule, scarcity of resources requires publishers to more seriously consider what they are publishing.

With the Internet, that financial filter has totally disappeared. That’s good for small publishers, but is generally bad for our brains. We now have no filter, and thus we are barraged with news that is uncontrolled by any physical limits — and the good stuff is often visually indistinguishable from the trash. Our brains are left to somehow sift through it all — a monumental task they simply never evolved to handle — resulting in anxiety and overwhelm.

Non-stop news and social media reward the extremes.

With our physical and financial filters gone, we are left at the mercy of algorithms and advertising deals that reward attention rather than education. The result is not just “fake news,” but also that the best publications are forced to vie for eyeballs and advertising dollars against the lowest-brow competitors, because almost everybody is basing their reading decisions on pithy headlines and spur-of-the-moment distractions.

This is why The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times are reduced to luring page views with clickbait and taking over your screen with autoplaying video ads. The current web publication economy, in which revenue is almost entirely dependent on page views, is failing serious readers and serious journalists alike.

Evan Williams, a co-founder of Twitter and the founder of Medium, recently told The New York Times that “the Internet is broken.” He said:

Instead of a more vibrant democracy, we have an environment that rewards the most extreme and attention-grabbing behavior, and a population of citizens who’ve fled into the relative calm of polarization.

How to calm down — without missing out.

There’s a third response to the fight-or-flight challenge — check out entirely. This is a popular solution among technology professionals because going off the grid is an edgy and contrarian answer, especially for someone whose livelihood is based on computers and the web. For two months after the election, this was my plan.

The failure of going off the grid is that, sooner or later, it forces you to accept that you are no longer an engaged, informed citizen. There are problems with media and government, but I don’t accept the premise that apathy and ignorance are an appropriate solution, or that technology is inherently bad. When I see intelligent, intellectual people check out, I see a democracy losing a potentially empowered, influential citizen.

So I started to search for a neurologically balanced approach to the news. What I found was lots of daily e-mail newsletters full of links, which brought me right back into the social media and clickbait vortex I’d hoped to avoid. None of it got me any closer to my goal of a calm, focused learning experience.

First, we’d slow it down.

The daily news cycle creates information overload — there are only so many minutes, and so much brainpower, an individual can expend each day. Likewise, it creates a “me first!” attitude among publications, which leads to a misleading emphasis on news that is breaking at this very moment. That is not necessarily the most important news of the day, and it almost certainly isn’t going to be important in a week — but it’s front and center and screaming in your face because immediacy and urgency keep you clicking.

When you step back from the daily grind, everything calms down. Many flash-in-the-pan stories fade away entirely within a few days. Others evolve and become more interesting and valuable as time goes on. A slower pace is a far better fit for our brains.

Then, we’d scale it back.

A second side effect of the hotly competitive web publishing world is the tendency to value quantity over quality. We write more, more, more. We cover the same story from 100 different angles, injecting tens of thousands of words of opinion and analysis into an event that could be explained in a few sentences.

This overloads us and also makes it seem like everything is aggressively political. Even major, respectable newspapers delve into analysis and controversial context a few lines into the typical news story. When there’s unlimited space to fill, we tend to write far more than necessary — without regard for the limited capacity of our readers’ brains.

Finally, we’d cut out all the links and likes.

The news should be a calm, focused learning experience — not a cacophony of social sharing or an infinite web of links to other articles and distractions. The push for more page views and more attention leads publications to believe that sharing and popularity matter. They do matter in terms of revenue — but this forces publications to act in direct opposition to the best interest of their readers.

Learning about current events is a serious, valuable, intellectual pursuit, and it deserves a presentation that doesn’t care about clicks and shares. By eliminating social media and forcing writers to explain themselves without a million external links, we create a self-contained, focused experience where you can relax, learn and move on with your day.

With more space and more time, bias and anger fade away.

As I changed my mindset and moved away from my addiction to non-stop news, I unexpectedly discovered that different points of view seem more relaxed, more reasonable, and less angry and absurd when you stop rushing from one article to the next, frantically seeking something to feel good about. With the distance of even a few days, tweets and rants fade away, and the simple, factual events and actions that change our world take center stage.

Without the distraction of constant stimulation, we can boil down current events to simple, verifiable facts and eliminate opinion, analysis and absurdity. From that perspective, there’s a lot more room for agreement, compromise and healthy democracy — and far less space for loud, angry extremism.

Rob Howard is the author of Hiatus, the weekly current events briefing with no links, no likes and no distractions. In five minutes a week, you get the knowledge you need to be an informed, responsible citizen.