How does Social Media amplify political tribalism?
We long to belong
It’s really deep in our bones.
On one level, it’s nice to feel part of a group. Welcome, included and safe. On a human emotional level, that’s a nice experience.
But on an animal level, its life and death. Belonging meant you were supported and protected by the pack. Not belonging meant dying out in the cold.
In the real world, there are many different kind of cues that let us know we belong.
Smiles, and other body language cues.
Looking the same. Dressing the same.
People remembering your name.
Sharing similar vocal and verbal behavior (eg, volume, tonal range, speed, rhythm, accent, vocabulary)
Sharing similar physical posture and behaviors (how much or little you gesture with hands, how much eye contact you make etc)
(These last two categories are a lot of what is taught as “rapport” tools in NLP)
I’m sure there are more.
Mostly there is real time feedback that your whole being is more or less seen and more or less welcome.
And this is important and necessary for our emotional health as social animals.
Cut to 2018.
Because of our uniquely plastic minds, we have figured out a new signal for belonging: the facebook like or twitter like, and the positive comment.
That little dopamine hit that you get from these likes and comments is your million year old brain rewarding you for belonging.
So we have grown to get more and more of our sense of belonging not from interacting in flesh and blood with other people, but mediated through this software.
Here’s where it goes wrong. In real life, you get a sense of your whole being belonging. Because you’re all there.
On social media, the only part of you that gets communicated (for the most part, and especially on twitter) is your ideas. So that’s the part that feels like it belongs.
We have outsourced this software to provide our (psychologically necessary) sense of belonging, but it can only do that by making us feel like we belong IDEOLOGICALLY. Because ideas are the main thing being exchanged on Social Media.
So all of this machinery about how incredibly important it is to belong and how dangerous it is not to belong, is being engaged to make us deeply identify with our ideological tribe and feel it’s very very important to position ourselves ideologically.
Imagine you are a progressive and you’re going to spend an hour with Trump supporting uncle Joe.
Now imagine that hour will be spent chatting on a Facebook comment thread vs spent hiking in the woods. Or cooking together. Or shopping. Or doing literally anything in physical space together.
How much more likely is it to go well in real life versus Facebook?
And so here we find ourselves. At the end of 2018, feeling increasingly polarized, increasingly identified with our political positions, and increasingly incensed by those that differ from us.
All because we’ve learnt to know we belong by checking a piece of software twenty times a day.