Editor’s Note: No Mercy/No Malice is a column from Professor Scott Galloway, where he shares various reflections on business, tech, and life each week.
Our national dialogue, if that’s what you can call it, has gone from coarse to vile. I appear on business television about once a week. Live TV is hard; the people are nice, and I’ve convinced myself it’s a good regular challenge. CNBC, Bloomberg, and CNN feel very much at home for me, as we mostly engage in violent agreement — my values mimic those of most media outlets, the conservative wing of the far left. I go on Fox regularly, as I want to get out of my bubble, and I like the people there. Stuart Varney is charming, and Neil Cavuto seems whip-smart. And it’s fun to be challenged (“You’re a socialist, are you not?”). I even think the parties — viewers, me, the host — come away with more empathy for the other side. #dreamon
I went on Fox last week, and the conversation turned to Facebook executives Mark Zuckerberg and Sheryl Sandberg. I made some strong (or weak, depending on your view) statements about how the duo would be remembered. Nothing I haven’t said before. The segment was posted to the Fox Business channel on YouTube. The comments were rattling. Many of those that got an upvote were misogynistic or anti-Semitic. What could explain this?
- Fox viewers are more likely to be bigoted?
- Bad actors (bots and trolls) are drawn to Fox, as they feel it’s easier to wreak havoc there?
- All of us need to be more thoughtful about the line between provocative and incendiary, knee-deep in gasoline passing out lighters?
- All of the above?
Most people cite as culprits the tone set by our leaders and the media’s adoption of rage as a business model. No doubt. But I believe the real fire starter is the tobacco of our generation, social media. It’s the algorithms that have determined that the path to more engagement, clicks, and Nissan ads is paved in rage. The algorithms sense if you lean left or right, then begin shoving you to the poles and serving you increasingly provocative and extreme content you can’t turn away from, to scratch a tribal itch.
Social platforms did not realize that “connecting the world” could lead to very bad places, and they’ve been paid to ignore the problem. Some lowlights:
- On Instagram, a search for the word “Jews” displayed 11,696 posts with the hashtag “#jewsdid911,” claiming that Jews had orchestrated the Sept. 11 terror attacks.
- Cesar Sayoc, who was charged last week with sending explosive devices to prominent Democrats, appeared to have been radicalized online by partisan posts on Twitter and Facebook.
- In Brazil, Facebook’s WhatsApp was weaponized by pro-Bolsonaro actors, who spread false data about polling locations and times to suppress the vote among supporters of rival candidates.
- In Pittsburgh, Robert Bowers opened fire inside the Tree of Life synagogue, killing 11 people and wounding others. Just before the attack, Bowers posted about his intentions on social media site Gab, known for accommodating extremism.
- And on and on and on.
At what point does social media’s inability, or unwillingness, to stop fueling rage become a national security or health issue? I believe if YouTube were shut down for a week, due to public-safety risk, they would figure out a way (crisply) to dramatically reduce the problem. It would also, no doubt, dramatically reduce their profits.