Social media promised to connect us, but left us isolated, scared and tribal

- By Arash Javanbakht Wayne State University n This piece was coauthored with Maryna Arakcheiev­a, who is expert in digital solutions and marketing. THE CONVERSATI­ON

ABOUT a year ago I began to follow my interest in health and fitness on Instagram. Soon I began to see more and more fitness-related accounts, groups, posts and ads. I kept clicking and following, and eventually my Instagram became all about fit people, fitness and motivation­al material, and advertisem­ents. Does this sound familiar?

While the algorithms and my brain kept me scrolling on the endless feeds, I was reminded of what digital marketers like to say: “Money is in the list.” That is, the more customized your group, people and page follows, the less time and money is needed to sell you related ideas. Instead, brand ambassador­s will do the work, spreading products, ideas and ideologies with passion and free of charge.

I’m a psychiatri­st who studies anxiety and stress, and I often write about how our politics and culture are mired in fear and tribalism. My co-author is a digital marketing expert who brings expertise to the technologi­cal-psychologi­cal aspect of this discussion. With the nation on edge, we believe it’s critical to look at how easily our society is being manipulate­d into tribalism in the age of social media. Even after the exhausting election cycle is over, the division persists, if not widening, and conspiracy theories continue to emerge, grow and divide on the social media. Based on our knowledge of stress, fear and social media, we offer you some ways to weather the next few days, and protect yourself against the current divisive environmen­t.


THOSE of us old enough to know what life was like before social media may remember how exciting Facebook was at its inception. Imagine, the ability to connect with old friends we had not seen for decades! Then, Facebook was a virtual dynamic conversati­on. This brilliant idea, to connect to others with shared experience­s and interests, was strengthen­ed with the advent of Twitter, Instagram and apps.

Things did not remain that simple. These platforms have morphed into Frankenste­in’s monsters, filled with so-called friends we’ve never met, slanted news stories, celebrity gossip, selfaggran­dizement and ads.

The artificial intelligen­ce behind these platforms determines what you see based on your social media and web activity, including your engagement with pages and ads. For example, on Twitter you may follow the politician­s you like. Twitter algorithms quickly respond and show you more posts and people related to that political leaning. The more you like, follow and share, the faster you find yourself moving in that political direction. There is, however, this nuance: Those algorithms tracking you are often triggered by your negative emotions, typically impulsivit­y or anger.

As a result, the algorithms amplify the negative and then spread it by sharing it among groups. This might play a role in the widespread anger among those engaged in politics, regardless of their side of the aisle.


EVENTUALLY, the algorithms expose us mostly to the ideology of one “digital tribe”—the same way my Instagram world became only superfit and active people. This is how one’s Matrix can become the extremes of conservati­sm, liberalism, different religions, climate change worriers or deniers or other ideologies. Members of each tribe keep consuming and feeding one another the same ideology while policing one another against opening up to “the others.”

We are inherently tribal creatures anyway; but particular­ly when we’re scared, we regress further into tribalism and tend to trust the informatio­n relayed to us by our tribe and not by others. Normally, that’s an evolutiona­ry advantage. Trust leads to group cohesion, and it helps us survive.

But now, that same tribalism—along with peer pressure, negative emotions and short tempers— often lead to ostracizin­g those who disagree with you. In one study, 61 percent of Americans reported having unfriended, unfollowed or blocked someone on social media because of their political views or posts.


HUMAN thinking itself has been transforme­d. It’s now more difficult for us to grasp the “big picture.” A book is a long read these days, too much for some people. Scrolling and swiping culture has reduced our attention span (on average people spend 1.7 to 2.5 seconds on a Facebook news feed item). It has also deactivate­d our critical thinking skills. Even really big news doesn’t last on our feed longer than a few hours; after all, the next blockbuste­r story is just ahead. The Matrix does the thinking; we consume the ideology and are bolstered by the likes from our tribemates.

Before all this, our social exposure was mostly to family, friends, relatives, neighbors, classmates, TV, movies, radio, newspapers, magazines and books. And that was enough. In that, there was diversity and a relatively healthy informatio­n diet with a wide variety of nutrients. We always knew people who were not like-minded, but getting along with them was normal life, part of the deal. Now those different voices have become more distant—“the others” we love to hate on social media.


WE need to take back the control. Here are seven things we can do to unplug ourselves out of the Matrix:

▪ Review and update your ad preference­s on social media at least once per year.

▪ Confuse the AI by flagging all ads and suggestion­s as “irrelevant.”

▪ Practice being more inclusive. Check other web sites, read their news and do not “unfriend” people who think differentl­y from you.

▪ Turn off cable news and read instead. Or at least put a discipline­d limit on hours of exposure.

▪ Check out less biased sources of news such as NPR, BBC and The Conversati­on.

▪ If you think everything your tribe leaders say is absolute truth, think again.

▪ Go offline and go out (just wear your mask). Practice smartphone-free hours.

▪ Finally, remember that your neighbor who supports the other football team or the other political party is not your enemy; you can still go for a bike ride together! I did today, and we didn’t even have to talk politics.

It’s time to take the red pill. Take these seven steps, and you won’t give in to the Matrix.

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