In George Orwell’s dystopic novel 1984, citizens are encouraged to stop what they’re doing each day and participate in “the Five Minutes Hate”, a ritual in which they unleash their most bitter hatred and channel it at an enemy leader in a patriotic display of solidarity with their government. It’s an exercise for people to tap into their darkest, most violent selves and focus that anger in the direction of the government’s choosing.
When I read this story as a teen, this idea was unthinkable to me — why would people want to cultivate their ugliest emotions, stoking flames of hatred every day, on cue like this? Now, in 2020, the Five Minutes Hate has sadly become a permanent fixture of most people’s social media diet.
Social Media as the Five Minutes Hate
With the spread of social media sites, we have seen the growth of “clickbait” news content that is expressly designed to go viral by following a set of rules to get people to share articles with their friends. Among these rules are things like “use incredibly strong emotional triggers“, “connect with current frustrations“, and target content to specific self-identifying segments of the audience.
Some of Buzzfeed‘s most common stories fall into categories like:
Trashy: Schadenfreude-esque content. People like to feel better about themselves by mocking or ridiculing the failures of others, especially the famous
Fail: Content that points out the failings of both individuals and society — a way for everyone to collectively vent through shared frustrations
These articles “work out” our ugliest emotions
The viral articles we share serve as a workout for our emotions, prompting us to tap into our feelings of outrage, judgment, superiority, frustration, and disgust, and direct them at whatever new outrage is served up to us today. Most people I know are struggling with the negative articles that fill up our Facebook feeds, encouraging us to feel outraged about this or that news event. By getting us all upset and angry, we’re more likely to comment and share the article — exactly the behavior that promotes their sites.
We share articles to define our identities to our friends
We share these articles partially to define our identities to our friends — letting them know who we think we are through the things we agree with and disagree with. I might share an article about the 9 Outrageous Things Donald Trump Has Said About Latinos as a way of saying to my friends “I am outraged by what Trump said, therefore, I am a non-racist, enlightened person who has positive feelings about Latinos”. People might share articles supportive of #BlackLivesMatter as a show of solidarity to justice-minded friends, or, depending on one’s social circle, they may share #AllLivesMatter articles as a show of solidarity with the backlash movement. With each share on social media, you are declaring an identity to your online friends, saying “I am this kind of person, and I am against what those people are doing”. You are defining an us and a them, and subconsciously forcing your friends to choose sides between the two groups.
Social Media Creates Echo Chambers
The “filter bubble” produced by Facebook’s content algorithm shows people content they’re likely to agree with, based on their friends’ likes. This creates an echo chamber, where you’re more likely to see news articles you agree with, while challenging material doesn’t reach your feed.
Echo Chambers Promote Extremism
The rise of Donald Trump and other extremist far-right political movements around the world is being attributed to the proliferation of fake news on social media. Sites like Facebook show us more content from those we agree with — whether or not they are sharing factually correct information. This allows factually inaccurate movements like anti-vaxxers, climate change deniers, and creationists to group together and reinforce one another’s false beliefs.
We define who is “us” and who is “them”
So what’s this have to do with social media? Maybe you’ve noticed that news articles go viral on social media when they make people outraged.
They hold up people and ideas that deserve to be mocked so we can all bond over how bad that thing or person is. In my social circles, it’s Trump, science deniers, cops killing unarmed black men, and religious hypocrites, but your circle might love to malign Obama, atheists, and public radio listeners. People will write a huge online screed about an article they only read the headline to!
We have all made room in our lives (and our Facebook feeds) to consider stories that make us angry. Stories that tell us of some other people out there, different from us, who are doing unthinkably stupid and bad things.
This is a new phenomenon. Our smartphones have made it easy for us to find someone to ridicule publicly (or gang up on and actually attack, online or off) at any time of the day or night, from anywhere.
So Who Are You Othering?
The great danger of this whole phenomenon is that we dehumanize those we disagree with, ignoring their reasons for believing what they believe, and recasting their ideas as brazen, reckless lies. We come to believe that no rational person would disagree with us, so that anyone who does hold alternative beliefs does so for malicious or dishonest reasons.
Whether you are liberal or conservative, you would do well to cultivate compassion for those you disagree with. You know an issue well when you can restate your opponent’s main arguments, giving the reasons they might give for why they disagree with you. Look for the things they’re trying to protect, and what their position reveals about what’s most important to them. You may find you value different things, and talking about those values (as opposed to the divisive issue) is a good place to find consensus.
Whenever possible, get off the computer, put your phone away, turn off the TV, and go participate in a community event that brings diverse types of people together. Make an effort to meet people from groups you don’t normally mix with, especially if you have strong political feelings about how those people should be living their lives. You’ll find that people
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