In this time of post-election hand-wringing and soul-searching, a considerable amount of condemnation has landed at Facebook’s feet. The blame is both fair and multifaceted: Some is aimed at the “fake news” articles the social media giant allowed to proliferate, some is aimed at the click economy, some is reserved for the way the platform enabled so many to only read the news they wanted to, even if it was real. But as Black Mirror has taught us, technology is only evil in that it facilitates our worst impulses. Some of the Facebook blame lies with us for how we used the medium to ideologically self-segregate. Facebook may have trapped us in our filter bubbles, but we filled them ourselves by deciding what to share, whom to follow, whom to engage with, and whom to ignore.
Unfortunately, there are deep psychological reasons behind why we self-segregate. We’re hardwired to want to share information about ourselves, and we constantly crave positive feedback. Social media sites are successful because they take advantage of these natural impulses and can reward them anytime and anywhere. People love to talk about themselves, online and off. Offline, research has shown that people are willing to give up small amounts of money for the chance to share information about themselves. Other research suggests that receiving positive feedback (even from total strangers) activates the same reward-processing regions of the brain that respond to tasty food or winning money, and that a greater neural reward response to positive social feedback predicts greater Facebook use. Social media at large, but Facebook in particular, provide an enormous platform on which people can constantly express themselves and reap the rewards—we don’t need a brain scanner to know that posting something and getting likes in response feels good.
Being liked is better than being ignored or disagreed with, so it’s no surprise that online, as in person, we often choose to censor ourselves by sharing what we think our friends will agree with and not posting when we think we’ll be met with disagreement. We also segregate ourselves from those who hold beliefs that conflict with our own. A 2012 Pew Research study found that 18 percent of social media users have blocked, unfriended, or hidden someone because of political disagreements. The numbers aren’t yet updated for the 2016 election, but I would bet that they’ve only climbed higher. Our drive to only share information that appeals to similar others promotes social conformity and political polarization while providing the illusion of consensus. Thus, we work in tandem with the news feed algorithm: We choose whom to engage with, and what to share, before the algorithm can decide what to show us.
In this particularly divisive election cycle, much of what was shared on social media was harsh (and sometimes untruthful) toward the other side. Hillary Clinton was portrayed as corrupt and untrustworthy, and her supporters were too busy policing political correctness to realize that the Establishment was failing the country. Donald Trump was racist and misogynistic, and his supporters were smugly dismissed as too foolish to see through Trump’s lies and too hateful to disavow Trump’s rhetoric. Every time we shared a post reinforcing whichever side we agreed with, a flurry of likes cemented the fact that we were right and the other side was wrong—or downright evil.
Now that the election is over, can Clinton and Trump supporters break out of their polarized social media bubbles and find a way to come together? Some have argued that casting a vote for Trump, given the hateful rhetoric he employed during his campaign, is irredeemable. But refusing to distinguish Trump supporters who wholeheartedly believed his invective from Trump voters who didn’t agree with everything he said only sharpens our divide and shrinks the potential liberal electorate. When all Trump voters became stereotypical deplorables, Clinton supporters stopped seeing them as real, individual people and consequently discounted their influence. And if this election shows nothing else, we need to engage in more dialogue right now, not less.
So how do we do this? Science suggests we can counter the dehumanizing effect of stereotypes by providing a simple, personal fact that distinguishes someone as an individual. We can apply this idea to how we use social media: The next time you see a Facebook post or comment that you disagree with, click through to the poster’s profile and remind yourself of his or her humanity. When you return to the offending statement, remind yourself that it came from a human being who is probably someone you once wanted to be friends with. In my personal experience, simply clicking through to the profiles of my Trump-voting Facebook friends has also caused them to start appearing in my news feed. Seeing the viewpoints of differently minded friends has broadened my perspective and evolved my response to this election.
Our natural tendency is to more readily empathize with and forgive our ingroup than our outgroup, so engaging with voters from the other side will take concentrated effort. One benefit of social media is that we can engage on our own timetable. If we see something we disagree with, we can let our emotions cool before leaving a comment that acknowledges someone’s perspective, even while we disagree with it. (Facebook, can we get a thoughtful “Hmm” reaction button?) Through empathetic interactions with those from the other side, we can reach through our bubbles. This advice comes with the caveat that you may find some people too offensive to engage with, or your friends may not be willing to reciprocate your efforts. This might not be a solution for everyone. Also, if you suffer from a completely homogenous friend group, Hi From the Other Side is pairing up Clinton and Trump voters who are interested in civil discourse. Get involved in that.
It is ultimately up to you to decide how much of a safe space to cultivate in your social media accounts. But indiscriminately blocking or hiding the voices of those you don’t agree with does not silence them; it only deafens you.