PITTSBURGH, PENNSYLVANIA, a city once known for steel mills, bootlegging, and brawls, has earned the right to feel proud again. Among its points of pride has been a declining homicide rate: in 2017 the number of area gun deaths dropped for a third straight year to 147. The next year looked much the same until one terrible Saturday morning in October when a hate-fueled bigot burst into the Tree of Life synagogue and shot seventeen people.
Robert Bowers, the forty-six-year-old white truck driver charged in the crime, was armed with an assault rifle and three handguns. In the synagogue, according to law enforcement, the burly, six-foot gunman killed eleven elderly, unarmed Jews, the oldest of whom was ninety-seven-year-old Rose Mallinger. Yet, in social media Bowers portrayed himself as an avenger. “I can’t sit by and watch my people get slaughtered,” he wrote just before the attack. “I’m going in.”
That nonsensical notion—that elderly, peaceful Jews were fomenting the extermination of white Christians—didn’t fall out of the sky. It grew like fungus in the dark caves of extremist media.
Extensive reporting by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette shows that Bowers journeyed from regular conservative Joe to delusional neo-Nazi via the airwaves of extremist radio to the rails of internet conspiracy theory, and thence to an underground fortress of paranoia known as Gab.com. Former friends say that Bowers kept a shotgun by the door to ward off invading United Nations troops (as if the UN had its own sovereign army). Police revealed that his posts obsessed about a Jewish aid organization that he imagined was funneling terrorists into the US in the guise of refugees.
If the Tree of Life massacre stood alone, we might dismiss Bowers as a homicidal crackpot. But, horrific as it was, the incident fits into a clear and troubling pattern. While crime in general wanes, hate-fueled violence erupts in flame. While democracy has been on the rise since the fall of the Soviet empire, violent autocracy has emerged as the people’s choice in places as different as Russia, the Philippines, Hungary, and Brazil. Whereas racism and the oppression of women and sexual minorities had lost legitimacy in much of the world, suddenly these prejudices are rising from the grave, cloaked in ugly, religiously tinged nationalism.
The last time anything like this happened was the 1930s, when the misery of the Great Depression allowed fascist regimes to take power in the diverse cultures of Italy, Germany, and Japan. This time, the world’s leading democracies are tearing themselves apart. Driving the wedge are Facebook, Twitter, and other social media. They tap the instinctive fears and hostilities of people like Robert Bowers.
Fascist violence is resurfacing in Germany, a nation that has dedicated enormous resources and self-examination to allay its Nazi past. One culprit stands out; as the New York Times reports, attacks on refugees there follow directly from hateful posts on Facebook. “It isolates us from moderating voices or authority figures, siphons us into like-minded groups and, through its algorithm, promotes content that engages our base emotions,” says social psychologist Betsy Paluck.
A study reported by Scientific American documents a similar problem here in the US: Donald Trump’s anti-immigrant tweets show a strong association with anti-Muslim hate crimes. The spikes stand out even in ethnically diverse, Democratic-majority counties, leaving Trump’s tweets as the only identifiable cause.
With no less a figure than the president of the United States sharing hate speech on social media, these trends raise many questions, but the one most relevant here is this: Can humanism quell human nature?
Humanist philosopher Andrew Norman believes it can. Bowers’ atrocities weighed on Norman and his wife, Heidi. Their children attended nursery school at the Tree of Life synagogue. But long before gunfire struck close to home, the philosopher had been at work on antidotes to the poison in the minds of Bowers and so many others.
“It’s become clear to me in the last ten years or so that systems of belief can derange people,” Norman said in an interview for this story. (Full disclosure: we have coauthored several articles.) His decade of work leaves him confident that philosophy and science can spread resistance to toxic ideologies. He’s writing a book that examines how to bring that about.
Norman, who heads the Humanist Initiative at Carnegie Mellon University, says one key is to approach the problem with a medical mindset. “Just as physicians can identify disease in various organs, we should be able to identify poisonous belief systems that invade the mind.” The trouble is, all too many people, from scholars to YouTubers, feel that passing judgment on worldviews is taboo. “Certain beliefs disconnect us from deep sources of morality,” Norman says. “We need to be able to call that out.”
“Take the idea that all human beings have rights. That’s a perfect antidote to the naïve feeling that we can attack those we don’t like. Inquiry, reason, open-mindness: these all tend to dampen our cognitive biases and boost our cognitive immune response.”
Continuing the analogy, he notes that “if a cancer doctor says you have cancer, you wouldn’t respond, ‘Who are you to say my tumor is dysfunctional?’” Yet, when it comes to dysfunctional belief systems, we do it all the time in the name of egalitarianism, cultural difference, freedom of speech, or nonjudgmentalism. “‘Who’s to say?’” he contends, “isn’t a substantive question, it’s a culturally conditioned reflex that suppresses our ‘immune response’ to bad ideas.”
What’s needed, Norman argues, is a vigorous, science-based program of “cognitive immunotherapy.” That requires developing habits of mind that challenge claims and filter out the dubious ones before they can detonate our emotions.
Journalism professor Matt Waite isn’t so sure. He helped start Politifact, a website intended to help users weigh the truth-value of politicians’ statements. Waite is proud of the venture, yet he’s the first to admit that it’s not having the intended effect. He doubts that intellectual armor can deflect instinctive appeals.
Recalling Nobel-prize winner Daniel Kahneman’s book Thinking Fast and Slow, which distinguishes the fast-twitch, emotive, unconsciously biased bits of our brain (“System 1”) from its plodding, hand-programmed, reasoning faculties (“System 2”), Waite laments, “Politifact is a System 2 answer to a System 1 problem.”
Social media aims at juicing our emotions rather than engaging our reason. The average American already spends five hours a day on mobile apps, Waite points out, and with Alexa and sister devices pervading our spaces, soon, he says, “We’ll be surrounded by media all the time.” System 2 may not stand a chance.
Interdisciplinary social scientist James Fowler of the University of California, San Diego brings those brain systems to light. Fowler teamed up with medical imaging experts to explore what’s going on in people’s heads when they think about politics. It turns out that most people react to national political issues by turning off the moral reasoning networks of their brains.
“Large-scale political behavior is an extremely recent phenomenon in the span of human evolution,” Fowler writes in the journal Science, “but the initial evidence suggests that it relies on genetic and neural mechanisms that evolved to solve basic social problems…about the organization of humans to achieve group goals and the distribution of resources within a group.”
In short, tribalism is our default state. But the same research shows that being well-informed allows both Democrats and Republicans to rise above their default state and engage in moral reasoning. So optimists and pessimists each have some evidence to support their view. Who’s right?
THE RISE OF NEOTRIBALISM
To address this question, we must first grasp its full dimensions. Humanism champions the use of reason, respect for science, striving for mutual well being, upholding justice, and ensuring human rights for all. These ideals have been refined and expressed in three manifestos to date. Implicit in each is a global society—indeed, Humanist Manifesto II (1973) explicitly called for world government.
Yet, human nature rebels against such ideals. Evolutionary anthropologists remind us that our hypersociality evolved in small, closely related bands. Robin Dunbar of Oxford University has lent his name to a specific number: 150. That’s his estimate of the maximum number of relationships any one person can successfully maintain, as well as the average size of our ancestral tribes.
Having first proposed the number in the 1990s, in 2016 Dunbar conducted a study of Facebook “friends” that came remarkably close. When the 3,300 study participants were asked some penetrating questions about their online friends, such as who they could turn to for help in a crisis, the numbers shrank from thousands to just a tad over 150 (aka “Dunbar’s number”).
Little wonder. Throughout history, most people were rural villagers, and before that we lived in bands of hunter-gatherers. The rise of cities left community intact; until modern transport and media untethered us, most city dwellers were anchored in neighborhoods, where they shopped, socialized, and worshiped with a few hundred familiar people.
In the whirligig of social change of the past half-century, tremendous progress has been forged. Legal forms of racism from segregation to apartheid have been abolished, women’s second-class status has been elevated in much of the world, poverty has eased, and freedom has reached unprecedented levels. Humanists have much to celebrate in the spread of democracy, human rights, and prosperity. Yet, all along a canker grew in the bud.
Following the collapse of the Soviet Union and the dawn of the internet, globalization began to take hold. For a time, it looked as if the humanist vision might be realized. Blue jeans became ubiquitous. Israeli tourists visited Egypt. President George H.W. Bush spoke of a new world order, Francis Fukuyama wrote about “the end of history.” Liberal democracy and market economies seemed the universal formula for happiness. But many found change disorienting.
International trade reshaped the global economy, uprooting communities, forcing people to shift from one job to another, flattening wages, and giving rise to a spectacular concentration of wealth. Millions of Africans, Asians, Latinos, Eastern Europeans, and Middle Easterners made their way to the West. These upheavals gave rise to social isolation, a breakdown of community, and a hunger for “the old ways.”
The shocking 9/11 attacks in 2001 led many in the West to conclude that they faced an external problem, namely radical Islam. It soon became clear, though, that no religion or culture had a lock on anomie. In his landmark 2006 book Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community, social scientist Robert D. Putnam observed, “Social dislocation can easily breed a reactionary form of nostalgia.” Sociologists named this impulse “neotribalism.” Social media supersized it.
The role of Russian operatives and Cambridge Analytica in exploiting Facebook to tip votes to Trump during the 2016 presidential campaign needs no rehashing here. But perhaps too much credit has been given to a few bad actors. Media critic Carlos Maza sees a structural flaw in the ointment. Writing at Vox, he observes,
Social media sites…figure out what information people like and then show them more of it. That’s a great way to keep people online, but it also makes these platforms prime targets for con artists. People are naturally drawn to inflammatory and sensational news stories, regardless of whether they’re true. So bad actors—conspiracy theorists, trolls, and fake news writers—have been tremendously successful in using these platforms to spread false and divisive content that exploits people’s tribal instincts.
Attempts to suppress fake news or hateful posts have proven largely futile. This remains true whether human or artificial reviewers are deployed. As Nadine Strossen, former president of the ACLU, points out, censorship is not only ineffective but often counterproductive.
THE BIASED BRAIN
A massive MIT study, published in Science in March and reported by Medical News Today last summer, pinpoints the bias that bends our brains toward fake news. Speaking at an American Psychological Association meeting, Information Systems Professor Mark Whitmore of Kent State University explained, “At its core is the need for the brain to receive confirming information that harmonizes with an individual’s existing views and beliefs.”
It’s an ideal nest for the cuckoo of extremism. Confirmation bias tips reason out of the mind and then feeds on our prejudices and paranoias.
The problem literally spans the globe. Noting that “humans are born with tribal instincts,” Riaz Haq, a Pakistani engineer turned investor and commentator, says, “Group affiliations can give people a sense of belonging, but they are sometimes also used…with the purpose of promoting hostility and violence. Social media platforms are being used both ways.”
Haq worries that his country, locked in a nuclear arms standoff with India, could be drawn into a catastrophic conflict. Writing in Pakistan’s Daily Times, he warns,
Powerful new media such as Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and WhatsApp lend themselves for use as extensions of covert warfare carried out by intelligence agencies against nations they see as hostile. …India’s ruling BJP party has extensively used social media apps to spread rumours, innuendo, fake news, outright lies, and various forms of disinformation. Indian intelligence agencies are most likely deploying their troll farms and bots to divide Pakistanis.
And the same is doubtless true of Pakistan’s intelligence services.
If humanism is to quell the ugly tribal instincts of human nature, engagement and education will clearly play key roles. Many universities and schools are trying to teach their students, who increasingly rely on the internet as a primary research tool, how to tell fact from fiction. Libraries are also trying to do their part to help the general public develop questioning habits and the knowhow to investigate their questions. Librarian Kathryn Kelley of Lincoln City Libraries, for example, teaches visitors how to kick the tires on a website before buying into it: “Examine the domain name. Is there an ‘About’ section? What does it tell you about the organization? Who’s running it? What can you learn about them? How often is the site updated?”
Similarly, in public presentations she urges information consumers to question a news story before they embrace it. “Is there an author? Does it cite sources? Step outside the story and find out if other news organizations are reporting the same thing. Visit a fact-checking site like Snopes.com and check it out.”
“In the tangle of social contagion models, bot wars, memes and counter memes, content review, and so forth, one thing seems sure: the principles of humanism will stand at the core of any solution—provided humanists themselves rise above the temptations of exclusionary cohesion.”
Philosopher Norman frames the task in larger terms. It’s all very well to teach critical thinking skills, he says, but that alone won’t suffice. “You equip an ideologue with critical thinking skills,” he notes, citing studies of climate change debates, “and they just become a better propagandist.”
To overcome cognitive bias, he says, we have to break free of our ideological commitments, and that requires engagement with people outside our “tribe.” People can recover from extremist commitments, but it typically requires personal engagement with the objects of hatred and a prolonged effort to smother the demons. “It’s a form of subtractive learning. People have to abandon certain beliefs and practices to grow,” says Norman. In place of tribal hatreds, they need to adopt the universalist tenets of humanism.
“Take the idea that all human beings have rights,” Norman continues. “That’s a perfect antidote to the naïve feeling that we can attack those we don’t like. Inquiry, reason, open-mindness: these all tend to dampen our cognitive biases and boost our cognitive immune response.”
Is this just idealistic blather? To ethnic and religious minorities and immigrants facing the implacable hatred of nativists or to women facing resurgent sexism it might seem so, but history and some emergent trends suggest that if we refuse to return hate with hate, we may just weather the storm.
Human nature is, above all else, adaptive. We are, according to circumstance, nasty or nice. So while everyone remembers the Balkans for bloody internecine conflicts, they forget the long periods of relative harmony in between. When Yugoslavia descended into civil war in the 1990s, many intermarried families were stranded.
In America today, cliche has it that family gatherings are marred by divisive politics. The reaction of some liberals is strikingly counterproductive. A recent HuffPost article titled, “What to do about your racist uncle at Thanksgiving,” advises a self-described liberal reader not to request a politics-free zone but rather to tell her mother that “the moment your uncle unleashes offensive garbage toward your family, you’re going to grab your kids and leave.”
Sure, racism is abhorrent. Yet, even our racist uncles have more to them than their politics. Moreover, the holiday dinner problem is older than Fox News Network, whose spread has had a documented effect on viewer misperceptions. In the 1960s, let’s not forget, it seemed the United States would fracture along a generational divide.
Tribalism may indeed appear rampant today, but it’s worth noting that despite his Twitter mastery, Trump remains the most unpopular president in modern history. In short, most Americans see through him. What’s more, the midterm elections brought a 55 percent surge in secular voters, who wound up at a record 17 percent of the electorate.
So, the winds of hate may shriek through the cracks in our democracy, but hope endures. “Pass it on” billboards encourage us to be kind, but we have yet to see a sweeping social media campaign aimed at bringing us together. Town hall meetings may bring us face-to-face, but we have yet to really try social togetherness across ideological divides. At least one bipartisan nonprofit aims at binding up our wounds. Better Angels works to depolarize America by teaching practical skills for communicating across political differences and forming red/blue community alliances.
Exactly which strategy will prove most effective in combating toxic social media has yet to be established. Likely, the challenge will evolve, and countermeasures will have to evolve with it. But in the tangle of social contagion models, bot wars, memes and counter memes, content review, and so forth, one thing seems sure: the principles of humanism will stand at the core of any solution—provided humanists themselves rise above the temptations of exclusionary cohesion.