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How Twitter forced us to hate Tribalism has infected every media narrative

Tribal gathering. Credit: Caroline Brehman/CQ-Roll Call, Inc/Getty

Tribal gathering. Credit: Caroline Brehman/CQ-Roll Call, Inc/Getty


February 25, 2022   6 mins

It is hard not to be cynical about “the media” these days, especially if you work in it. Spend any significant amount of time reading newspapers and magazines, watching cable news, or following discussions on Twitter, and you notice that a great deal of what is written and broadcast has a drearily predictable quality. Indeed, discrete events seem almost irrelevant except insofar as they can be slotted into pre-existing storylines.

Take the debates surrounding the trucker protests in Ottawa. The mainstream press, by and large, has attempted to assimilate the protests into categories familiar from the Trump years.

According to Politico, “far-Right” truckers, some of them sporting “Confederate and Nazi flags”, have “wreaked havoc on Canadian cities”. In the Guardian, one writer warned that the “siege of Ottawa” was an “astroturfed movement funded by a global network of highly organised far-Right groups and amplified by Facebook’s misinformation machine.” Slate, after dropping the trigger words “militia”, “hate”, “extremist”, and “Nazi”, called the protests an “armed occupation of a G-7 capital”. All linked the truckers with the domestic threat posed by Fox News, the Republican Party, and the American far-Right.

Critics of the establishment have responded with their own counter-narrative, aimed at portraying the truckers in a sympathetic light while focusing attention on the tyrannical response of the Canadian government. After Justin Trudeau invoked the Emergency Powers Act, Tucker Carlson labelled Canada a “dictatorship” and warned that similar measures would soon be coming to the United States. Over the weekend, as Ottawa police attempted to clear the city centre, Twitter was filled with viral videos of police violence against the protestors, juxtaposed with old quotes from progressive leaders praising the BLM protests of summer 2020, intended to highlight their hypocrisy.

These narratives have a recognisable logic, which holds whether the underlying event is the truckers or the Capitol riot. They are tribal, pitting a virtuous “us” against a malevolent “them”. They are curated to provoke fear of, and rage against, the out-group, often through “empathic triggers” that highlight aggression against the in-group. They are also, in a loose sense, conspiratorial, running together phenomena that have no logical connection except within the pattern of the narrative.

This is easy to recognise in Right-wing conspiracies about the 2020 election, but establishment media indulges in something similar. When CNN leads a story about Joe Rogan’s use of the n-word with a line about a man carrying “a Confederate flag inside the US Capitol rotunda”, the purpose is to train readers to create an emotional connection between the podcast host and white supremacist domestic terrorism, when none exists in reality.

The war between these tribal narratives, according to media theorist John Robb, is the defining feature of US politics today. He argues that a combination of establishment failures — the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Global Financial Crisis — and the information explosion ushered in by the internet have annihilated the legitimacy of the old narratives that used to hold Western states and societies together, nationalism being the most prominent one.

But humans are tribal and narrative creatures — take one story away and we will invent another one. Today, our most compelling narratives — the ones that provide us with the sense of “fictive kinship” formerly provided by membership in a nation, religion, or ethnic group — are political narratives defined by enmity.

This development, claims Robb, is largely the product of social media, where we are presented with more information than we can possibly pay attention to, let alone understand. We make sense of it by picking patterns out of the noise. These patterns, however, are social phenomena. And as the pioneers of clickbait discovered a decade ago, we are especially drawn to content that provokes a strong empathic response — generally something shocking or outrageous, though our specific triggers will depend on which pattern we are curating. Over time, we come to identify with those who respond to the same triggers and assimilate them to the same pattern. Our tribe is the collective of people outraged by the same things that outrage us.

The clearest example of how this works in the real world is the response to the video of Derek Chauvin killing George Floyd. The video was shocking and vivid. In a previous media environment, however, it would have had its emotional impact blunted by layers of context, expert commentary, and he-said-she-said quotes from local police and the Floyd family. Instead, the video was immediately assimilated to patterns such as “systemic racism”, provoking mass rage and mobilisation against not only Chauvin or the Minneapolis police department but the United States as a whole. Video of the ensuing protests set in motion a similar dynamic on the Right, as users curating patterns about “BLM rioters” and “antifa terrorists” circulated vivid footage of lootings, arsons, and assaults, often framed to induce outrage at the Left-wing politicians and journalists who were vocally supporting the protests.

Robb developed his framework as a way of understanding how digital politics and social media were bleeding over into the real world during the Trump administration. Trump himself, of course, had ridden a wave of social media enthusiasm into the White House, and his election prompted many of his more elite, media-savvy opponents to self-organise into the #resistance, which identified and amplified every real and imagined outrage of his presidency (including conspiracy theories about Russiagate).

Robb dubbed the open-source network supporting Trump ‘the #insurgency’. Unlike ‘the resistance’, which operated in the open and tried to compel government and corporate action through moral coercion and appeals to expert consensus, the #insurgency was largely anonymous. It sought to confuse and disorient its opponents, often through jokes and targeted harassment, and to prevent the emergence of consensus around resistance narratives.

For Robb, however, 2020 kicked the tribalisation of American politics into overdrive. First came the pandemic, which damaged an already fraying social fabric and forced Americans to spend more time online than ever before. The death of George Floyd then served as a huge empathic trigger for the Left, not only sparking mass popular mobilisation but also inducing a moribund Democratic Party establishment and many mainstream institutions to officially endorse Left-wing patterns such as “white supremacy”. The Right, in turn, began to tribalise in earnest after November 2020, uniting around patterns of conspiracy — surrounding the 2020 election, vaccines, the Covid-19 pandemic, Big Tech censorship — promoted by Trump and his allies.

The final accelerant, in Robb’s telling, was the Capitol riot. The assault on the Capitol proved for the Left that Trump and his supporters — including the Republican Party and virtually all of its voters — were not merely racists but existential threats to the republic, whose suppression was crucial to ensure the survival of democracy. Perhaps more importantly, the Capitol riot prompted the major tech companies to openly align with the Left, disconnecting Trump — then the sitting president — from their networks under the guise of preventing further violence. Given the control of these companies over not only political discourse but also much of the infrastructure of modern life, this alignment, for Robb, amounted to a declaration of corporate sovereignty over the U.S. political system.

Today Robb sees, on the one hand, a corporate and political establishment aligned around enforcing curated, Left-wing patterns as the de facto consensus view of reality — one that combines a technocratic emphasis on “facts” and “science” with a tribal moral narrative about the existential threat posed by racists and white supremacists, constantly reinforced by curated, emotionally charged stories that fit the pattern. On the other hand is an emerging tribal Right — though this tribe can more easily accommodate cranks and dissidents of all political persuasions — organised around a curated pattern of elite conspiracy, drawing its strength from any and all establishment failures and from attempts to censor or suppress its narrative. The victory of the former would represent what Robb calls “networked fascism”, or the alignment of government and corporate power behind a single approved narrative. The victory of the latter would lead to dissensus, disunion, and nihilism.

Robb’s framework provides a useful, if alarming, way of looking at contemporary debates over “misinformation” and online “hate”. Whether or not one buys his ominous warnings about “networked fascism”, his diagnosis of the tribal dynamics of social media — our tendency to assimilate information into politicised patterns, and to respond to empathy triggers that fit our pattern with rage and loathing directed at our tribal out-group — is an important reminder about the ways in which we are constantly emotionally manipulated by social media, often in ways we don’t recognise. And it should make us sceptical of both top-down attempts to enforce a consensus interpretation of reality — which is usually messy and offers few clear moral lessons — and of any bottom-up patterns that posit, as an explanation for all the phenomena that trigger us, some unified conspiracy or plan.

For individuals, too, Robb’s work is a warning about how easily the architecture of social media can be weaponised to make us hate our fellow citizens. Indeed, it is precisely when we don’t experience the emotion as “hate”, but rather as justified outrage against the enemies of everything righteous and holy, that we should be most suspicious.


Park MacDougald is Deputy Literary Editor for Tablet

hpmacd

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D Ward
D Ward
2 years ago

Works for me – i thought this was a useful, thought-provoking article.

Interestingly ( and possibly because) it did not use the two things known to make me shout at the poor dog: (i) describing the death of the fentanyl criminal GF as a “horrific murder” (which his death was not, despite Chauvin’s hasty subsequent conviction) and (ii) describing the events of “1/6” as an “insurrection” (which they clearly weren’t). So as predicted by the article
..

Rasmus Fogh
Rasmus Fogh
2 years ago
Reply to  D Ward

I am from the other side, and I am happy with ‘Capitol riot’ too. But I would have gone for the ‘killing’ of George Floyd. Never mind ‘horrific’, of course, but what do you think this event was?

Benedict Waterson
Benedict Waterson
2 years ago
Reply to  Rasmus Fogh

I don’t think it was a deliberate ‘killing’

Wilfred Davis
Wilfred Davis
2 years ago

Indeed.

Who would choose these conditions for deliberately killing someone … in a public place, in broad daylight, in circumstances where identification is inescapable (police uniform, badge number, police car licence plates), while being filmed by bystanders, and recording the events on your own police-issue body-cam?

Cheryl Jones
Cheryl Jones
2 years ago
Reply to  Rasmus Fogh

I think ‘death in custody’ is the most appropriate term

Rasmus Fogh
Rasmus Fogh
2 years ago
Reply to  D Ward

An equivalent subthread has disappeared from below the ‘Asians Education’ article. So, if anyone can answer it here:
Would you say that

  • The actions of Derek Chauvin were a normal and acceptable part of policing; not contributory to the death of George Floyd; something Chauvin and colleagues should do again if they get the chance?
  • Or that it was unacceptable police brutality, but that the death of the (yes, in this case) victim was completely unforeseeable?
Linda Hutchinson
Linda Hutchinson
2 years ago
Reply to  Rasmus Fogh

As the same thing happened before, although as the dead man was white it wasn’t given so much coverage, it should have been forseen. However, I’m still not sure if it were murder; but I’m not au fait with the US system so it could be under their laws.

Rasmus Fogh
Rasmus Fogh
2 years ago

Indeed. I’d call it manslaughter and have done with it, but some of our fellow commenators seem to object to that.

Linda Hutchinson
Linda Hutchinson
2 years ago
Reply to  Rasmus Fogh

Manslaughter is my take on this and also that of a solicitor friend, but that’s in the UK.

Last edited 2 years ago by Linda Hutchinson
Rasmus Fogh
Rasmus Fogh
2 years ago

Manslaughter is the unlawful killing of a human being without malice. It is of two kinds:

Voluntary—Upon a sudden quarrel or heat of passion.

Involuntary—In the commission of an unlawful act not amounting to a felony, or in the commission in an unlawful manner, or without due caution and circumspection, of a lawful act which might produce death.

From Cornell law school, Legal Information Institute.
Sounds about right to me. But anyway we agree about the concept – UK manslaughter. The rest is a question of US semantics.

I’d be curious to see any of the US debaters comment if they think this definition does not apply.

Peter LR
Peter LR
2 years ago

This is a sound analysis. However, I’m not sure about this generalisation: “though this tribe can more easily accommodate cranks” referring to the Right. I thought this comment from a senior Left politician was really cranky: “if a man says he is a woman, he(sic) is a woman”. They couldn’t even unconfuse their pronouns.
Spiked Online is an interesting exception: they are all very much on the Left but end up speaking on the side of most of the viewpoints deemed of the Right. Does this not show the danger of binning common sense and rational thought; does no one possess these anymore?
I hope the general population is wising up to emotive media manipulation; leaving all the howling rage to those who have sacrificed their rationale on the altar of party political obedience.

Jean Nutley
Jean Nutley
2 years ago
Reply to  Peter LR

Your last paragraph neatly sums up exactly why there are no statesmen left. Woke cancel culture has destroyed integrity, and honest speech.

Cheryl Jones
Cheryl Jones
2 years ago
Reply to  Peter LR

Yes, it’s as if in the woke, cancel culture environment of the media you almost have to make some snide comment about the right just to keep your job.

Penny Adrian
Penny Adrian
2 years ago

Thank You for this. I am a lifelong progressive Democrat who recently quit the Democratic party and registered as an Independent.
This is largely because the Democrats no longer represent my values: they express contempt for Victims Rights; contempt for the police; contempt for free and open debate; contempt for those who care about ending sex trafficking; contempt for genetic women (which is NOT the same as caring about trans women); contempt for the “wrong” kind of poor people; and contempt for acknowledging poverty as an axis of oppression that cuts across race and gender lines.
The Democrats cannot win without “wine moms” like me (I don’t even drink wine but I’m a “wine mom” because of my age and race) so they’d better be more careful about the slurs they use against us. Many – like me – might just stop voting for them.

Linda Hutchinson
Linda Hutchinson
2 years ago
Reply to  Penny Adrian

It’s rather like the Labour party no longer reflects my values, its use of divisive politics does nothing to address inequality of opportunities (note: not equity, you can only control inputs not outputs) and poverty, By dividing along racial and age lines you can avoid the economically disadvantaged, black/white, young/old etc., from making common cause, which is all to the good of the economic elte,

Last edited 2 years ago by Linda Hutchinson
Karl Francis
Karl Francis
2 years ago
Reply to  Penny Adrian

Well said.

Cheryl Jones
Cheryl Jones
2 years ago
Reply to  Penny Adrian

You’re not the only one. Ex Labour and Remain voter here. Now considered far right scum LOL

Bronwen Saunders
Bronwen Saunders
2 years ago
Reply to  Cheryl Jones

Me too. There are many of us.

guadalv
guadalv
2 years ago
Reply to  Cheryl Jones

Me too. I experienced great guilt when I voted for neither party in the last election but now I am much more aware of policies and guilt free.

Jerry Smith
Jerry Smith
2 years ago
Reply to  Cheryl Jones

And count me in as well. Politically active for a lifetime, now politically homeless.

Lesley van Reenen
Lesley van Reenen
2 years ago
Reply to  Penny Adrian

Me too! Liberal left South African woman here. Homeless now.

Andrea X
Andrea X
2 years ago

Very interesting, as always.
One point, you say (and I think it is you talking here),
“…an emerging tribal Right — … this tribe can more easily accommodate cranks and dissidents of all political persuasions —”
Does it really or have you yourself bought into the mechanisms you are trying to expose?

Last edited 2 years ago by Andrea X
Arnold Grutt
Arnold Grutt
2 years ago
Reply to  Andrea X

Yes. I loved the implicit association between ‘cranks and dissidents’. And the word ‘Right’ is meaningless, unless contextualised (cf. the all-too-ready assocation of ‘right-wing’ with ‘F*scist’).

Last edited 2 years ago by Arnold Grutt
Margaret Tudeau-Clayton
Margaret Tudeau-Clayton
2 years ago

‘a corporate and political establishment aligned around enforcing curated, Left-wing patterns as the de facto consensus view of reality — one that combines a technocratic emphasis on “facts” and “science” with a tribal moral narrative about the existential threat posed by racists and white supremacists,…’
And yet this view of reality includes the denial of biological sex and the affirmation of gender self recognition – about as scientific and fact based as the assertion that the earth is flat.

guadalv
guadalv
2 years ago

I have concluded L is for deLuded and R for Realist.

Last edited 2 years ago by guadalv
Cheryl Jones
Cheryl Jones
2 years ago

But in the case of the truckers it seems pretty evident to anyone with an objective eye that the ‘far right’ are actually right and the Canadian government’s hysterical and authoritarian response is entirely disproportionate. This is not a case of ‘both sides are just as bad as each other (eye-roll)’ it is a very clear abuse of power against one’s own citizens who have EVERY RIGHT to object to actions that are affecting their lives and who have been ignored and slandered to the point that direct action was necessary. I can’t help but think there has been a distinct pattern emerging. Whenever the working classes stand up for themselves and don’t do as they are told they are demeaned and called every name under the sun to try and demoralise and squash them. Brexit. Trump supporters. The Gilets Jaunes. The Truckers. It’s the same pattern over and over.

Malcolm Knott
Malcolm Knott
2 years ago

I can’t speak for the USA but in the UK the only place you are likely to encounter far-right extremists is in the comment pages of the Guardian – and of course on the BBC when it is striving for ‘balance.’ By way of contrast, far-left extremists and their fellow travellers are with us here and now, in flesh and blood, far too numerous and often far too powerful. These are the people who can – and do – deprive other men and women of their living for daring to utter biological facts or declining to utter biological falsehoods.
When I read about Left-wing patterns of thought emphasising “facts” and “science” I reach for my ‘O’ level biology textbook to remind myself what it says about males and females.

Last edited 2 years ago by Malcolm Knott
Kiat Huang
Kiat Huang
2 years ago

The presumption that “Twitter forced us to hate” is simply wrong. It is that institutions (Media, Gov, Businesses, Tech, NGOs) have accepted Twitter as the #1 bellweather of their particular constituents or the communities they want to “reach”, adopt or not offend.

It is the institutional acceptance that then feeds the regurgitated Twitter angst back at us, into a continuous, escalating feedback loop. The effect is that small numbers of Twitter users (in the USA 90% of all tweets are produced by just 10% of users) can get their cause amplified so that it seems that more people care about it than they really do. It is why “woke” activism pays off on Twitter. It turns marginal issues into public ones.

But Twitter is intrinsically nothing new – before it, the internet had bulletin boards and forums, but as they dwelt before the smartphone became ubiquitous with its camera, apps and internet – they had limited use and missed a generation. There was the same hotbed of opinions, activism and reaction to news – but it had to wait until you got on your PC or laptop and the masses, the public, simply didn’t know about it or weren’t interested and neither were the institutions.

Twitter made institutions pay attention, take notice and adapt their way of reacting to the world around them. It helped that the social media professionals were, by and large, left-leaning millennials mirroring the early adopters before Twitter became very mainstream (the average age of US Twitter users is now almost 40 years old).

I rest my case . What say you? Do you have an alternative theory in mind?

Jean Nutley
Jean Nutley
2 years ago

I have to take issue with the headline to this article. Twitter cannot force anyone to do anything, but perhaps it can enable hatred or any other emotion to become entrenched. Like minds seek out other like minds, so can convince each other that their hatred is righteous, even when it isn’t!

Dick Illyes
Dick Illyes
2 years ago

Confirmation of the insights set out by Martin Gurri in his The Revolt of The Public and the Crisis of Authority in the New Millennium. Most Unherd readers would find him interesting.
Humans will find ways to deal with what this explosion of technology has brought. I hope it brings a desire to apply basic simple ideas such as non-aggression.
My favorite version says that to have the best possible human society, no one should initiate force against another, or deceive them so that they do something they would not otherwise do.
The proper role of government is preventing force and fraud.
Beyond this government itself becomes the problem.

Lee Patterson
Lee Patterson
2 years ago

Excellent article, thank you. While I agree with much of the analysis, I have reservations concerning the conceptual context which gives that analysis its frame of reference. So, although it’s beyond dispute that Twitter (and other popular social media platforms) create echo chambers that isolate cultural factions and render them unable to understand each other’s world views, I think you vastly oversimplify the groupings into tribal factions.

The obvious example is your adoption of the threadbare dichotomy of Left vs Right. This distinction may have been useful, as a convenient approximation, at some time in the past. Now, however, it rarely achieves better than 50/50 accuracy, with regard to predicting many substantive policy positions. Consider environment, free speech, women’s rights, law & order … on and on. Sure, there are a small handful of issues that typically follow the legacy faultlines such as abortion, gun control (at least in the US), concerns over social programs. But even within these reliably left-right bellwethers, the dividing lines are splintering.

When you relinquish reliance on rigid presumptions of allegiance along traditional, clearcut divides like Left and Right, you start to see new patterns forming. The most striking aspect of these patterns is their complexity. And that observation fits remarkably well with your central thesis: the fractures are driven largely be social media. The big difference is that they are fracturing along new and unfamiliar fault lines.

One example is gaming culture and, perhaps, technology-centric sympathies more broadly, including fascination with crypto currencies.

It’s tempting to fall into another popular way to dichotomize, by pointing to a new “elite class,” significantly defined by educational achievements. But this also seems too simple, as there is no shortage of freshly-minted lawyers and doctors, eager to occupy all kinds of ideological niches.

Everywhere we turn in this brave new world, complexity has swallowed the old order and we scramble to discern a new simulacrum of sanity. So, it’s no surprise that we find ourselves aligning with increasing passion to groups with whom we feel some degree of understanding, allegiance, and some poor substitute for community.

It’s also not surprising that the new sociocultural contours resemble the old as little as Twitter resembles the daily paper.