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Psychology : Applied

Outrage Machines: How social media amplifies hatred in a time of unspeakable horror

woman distressed in front of computer

The Middle East has been the epicentre of global tensions since literally year zero. While those living there have for centuries borne the brunt of actual violence, by a matter of degree, almost every single day – the sparks that intermittently ignite this simmering powder keg to explode, as it has this week, inevitably pulls the world into its fray.

With such unspeakable horrors happening on the ground as I write these very words it would seem a misuse of energy and attention to focus on something as peripheral to it as the social media storm that buzzes all around it; it’s akin to trying to heal an injured elephant by swatting away the swarm of flies hovering over the gaping wound above which they are swarming. Only that swarm is more than an annoying buzzing nuisance – those flies are vectors, vectors of hatred.

Anyone who’s been paying attention to events rolling out across Twitter (lesser known as X) and other social media will have an idea of the kind of hatred I am talking about. It seems to me that while on the ground you have a complex situation of governments, peoples, territories, ethnicities, religions, masses, individuals, those who are complicit and those who are innocent (to name a few) – online you have two options –one side or another. There is no in-between. There is no yes-but. You are either hate Jews or hate Arabs: love Israel or love Palestine. The hatred and divisiveness is spreading fast.

While the roots of this situation are not new, the deployment of its consequences is. We now live in a world where it is nearly impossible to validate what is true and what is not, and this fog of war envelopes the social media landscape entirely. Disinformation is being weaponised, that weaponisation is amplified, and the vehicle of this amplification sits comfortably in all of our pockets. Worst of all it appeals to the basest parts of human psychology – and is a threat to personal wellbeing and social cohesion.

The Truth is Bad Enough – Misinformation is Even Worse

While there are plenty of verified atrocities being committed by both Hamas and the IDF, social media is nonetheless awash with unrelated material like video game footage and video content from older conflicts attributed to the current conflict. Twitter’s new “blue tick” system, meant to verify users and promote their posts, nevertheless includes a bogus account posing as a BBC journalist posting faked photos of Cristiano Ronaldo holding a Palestinian Flag.

Elon Musk, a character who’s hardly demonstrated any form of restraint on his own network, has promoted accounts for the veracity of their news content, accounts which The Guardian has reported have a record of spreading false news. Musk has more than 150 million followers.

It’s not like this is happening outside of awareness. Just weeks ago the EU released a report outlining the scale of misinformation and fake accounts across social media platforms. These fake accounts are numerous and organised. YouTube alone (owned by Google) was found to have 400 channels “involved in coordinated influence operations linked to the Russian-state sponsored Internet Research Agency”.

We already know from the Cambridge Analytica scandal how much intentional involvement there was in sowing social discord in 2016 during the Brexit campaign and the 2016 US elections. Things have got much more sophisticated since then and the social media disinformation strategy has been going full-throttle around the war in Ukraine. And if you have found that at all worrying (and you should) which it comes to Palestine and Israel, well, you ain’t seen nothin’ yet.

Living in a Powder Keg and Kicking Off Sparks

box of dynamite with a fuse

That little piece of land the size of the US State of New Jersey contains within it the most highly emotive seeds of social division that exist in the world today. In this one place we have all the hot button issues like religion, race, ethnicity, colonialism, capitalism, corruption, ideology, intergenerational trauma, injustice, factionalism, and claims on land going back to biblical times. The transgenerational hatreds of the people on the ground, right now, are very real – and those realities resonate deeply across the globe in personal, psychological, and emotional resonant ways that stoke strong responses in us all – whatever our links to those events on the ground.

While the real war is happening on the ground, those of us watching from a distance, in addition to our concerns for those known and unknown, can’t help ourselves from identifying with protagonists and antagonists alongside projecting our fears and hopes upon them . We can see this happening through social media. Social media, as it happens, is a brilliant vehicle for projection mostly because it is so shit at transmitting nuance and complexity. And no more have we needed complexity and nuance than we do now. And now, we are getting it less than ever. All the while, all that projection and identification are tearing us apart from each other and fomenting rather than healing long unaddressed personal and social wounds.

If we are living in a powder keg, the sparks are the words and images we’re sharing on social media. Short-form social content is great for punchy superficial gesture, but just terrible at containing any form of complex nuanced context. The volatile nature of the provocative issues embedded in this conflict are barely containable even face to face among close others with whom we disagree. Exchanging with strangers online is not only impossible, but tends to result in the hardening of positions and may even contribute to radicalisation.

Social Media Amplifies Hatred

Boy screaming into microphone

What is unsurprising is that those people or groups who have a clear agenda will weaponise this tragedy to have their ends met. Antisemites and Islamaphobes will find many rich pickings to fight about and it doesn’t matter a jot that Jew and Zionist and Muslim and Palestinian are not really interchangeable terms. Haters are going to hate, and that’s not going to change anytime soon. The real problem is that those of us who prefer to see the complex situation rather than being forced to take the absurd position of “choosing a side”, find there’s no room for their tempered voice in a world of black and white, right and wrong. Sadly, if this issue is every going to be resolved – locally or globally – it’s going to be by people who can see past these binary options.

Not For Twitter: Social Media Strips Complexity

For me it seems to be the most logical thing in the world to experience unequivocal horror and revulsion at the nature of Hamas’s attack on Israeli civilians. This doesn’t make me a Zionist.

It seems the most logical thing in the world to acknowledge that the generations long state-sponsored violence by Israel upon the Palestinian people has created the conditions for this inevitable eventuality. This doesn’t make me an apologist for Hamas.

It seems to me the most logical thing in the world not to deny that the Israeli government bears heavy responsibility for having created the conditions for what is happening now, conditions that have been reinforced by the relative disinterest of the Western media to report on depravations and horrors the Palestinian people experience every day, not to mention the billions of dollars of financial and military support and lacklustre response to the continued construction of illegal Jewish settlements in the West Bank. This doesn’t make me an antisemite.

While I feel strongly about what’s happening right now, you’ll see my Twitter feed has been surprisingly absent of commentary about it (though full of commentary about Twitter itself). Naturally I fear that if I posted what I’ve written above I would be labelled as one thing or the other in a matter of seconds. I don’t feel particularly protected explaining it longform here, because to be honest, I would need several volumes to try to “explain myself” despite the fact that I’m hardly a stakeholder being neither Israeli nor Palestinian. However, by the mere accident of my having been born Jewish, and despite being an atheist, and despite having no claim on land in the Middle East (my ancestors are actually from Ukraine) I feel implicated anyway. But like the rest of you, I’m even further implicated on social media because if I open my mouth in any particular way, I am forced to be one thing, the not complex amalgamation of things that I am, and it happens to all of us, to our detriment.

All this stuff is hard enough in real life. It’s much worse on social media.

The People of the Middle East Should Not Be a Proxy for Culture Wars on Social Media

Social media goads us into taking the real and complex situation on the ground and using it as a proxy to express concerns that it embodies and represents. When it comes down to the actual human beings, few could really condone the atrocities being committed by anyone there – but that doesn’t mean we can’t understand why they may be happening. If we don’t understand it, we’ll ever resolve it. If it continues to remain binary, the solution will always be binary conflict. Nobody wins.

What I believe is happening is that the war in the Middle East has ignited the massive unhealed wounds in the global psyche – and the two have become fused. These events expose the inequities of the world that we live in, particularly post-colonial inequities that we all experience to one degree or another everyday. They are played out through racism, economics, migration, and the inequity of power, money, and resources across the globe: literally the global inheritance of colonialism: the very lines in the sand are colonial. Worldwide people have experience resonant dynamics to what has happened, and what is happening in the Middle East: some of us directly, some of us indirectly. That’s a really big problem. The exacerbating problem how we are expressing all that complexity through social media. You see, expressing is not the same thing as processing – in this case, the exacerbation of trauma and defence rather than the healing of that.

Social media is an outrage machine. It is designed for emotional contagion and its aim is to keep our eyes trained on the feed. It is not designed to help us resolve our own intergenerational trauma, and certainly not that of the Middle East. Social media is a divisiveness machine, and that’s not by accident.

Facebook, for one, knew this. It conducted a report to find out more about how its algorithms may have been contributing to polarisation and social division during the Brexit referendum and US election in 2016. This report, which was subsequently leaked, stated that:

“Our algorithms exploit the human brain’s attraction to divisiveness…if left unchecked [Facebook will produce] more and more divisive content in an effort to gain user attention and increase time on the platform.”

The report noted that 64% of its members found their way to extremist groups due to Facebook’s own recommendation tools. And while it’s a good thing that Facebook launched an internal report to better understand its contribution to social divisiveness, the findings of the report were “often dismissed or significantly diluted.” Why? You can probably guess. Keeping eyes on the platform increased the time that we are subjected to its ads, which subsequently enriches the platform.

Culture wars are a big driver for engagement on social media and I believe that this form of engagement may be causing serious psychological and sociological damage. The very technology that was supposed to bring us together is further tearing us apart. Instead of bridging understanding it is tearing us apart.

If there’s anything positive to be gained from this is that what we are witnessing illuminates the problem in ways that can no longer be ignored. Social media is too important to be left in the hands of techno-oligarchs, especially when, at best (I’m talking to you Zuckerberg) they are unwilling to do the necessary to fix it, or worse (I’m talking to you Musk) contributing to it directly. I’m afraid there will be no other option but for regulation, which at least the EU is stepping towards.

Don’t Use a Platform To Do What it Can’t

Many of us take to social media to vent our frustration, share our outrage, join with others who share our point of view. Others want to use their voice so that others can hear it. To show that there’s another point of view. To educate. If we are going to bridge over divisiveness, it is crucial that we are able to be meaningfully impacted by each other. But it does bear asking whether a given media is the best or most appropriate way to do so.

A tweet that reads "Expecting twitter to transmit complexity or nuance on a given subject is like asking a surgeon to perform an appendectomy with a butter knife.

I would suggest that being thoughtful about what a platform can and can’t do for you should be incorporated into your choice of whether and how you use it. You won’t find me engaging in discourse on Israel and Palestine on social media because I know it won’t do that job for me. I know it will make things worse because I know how social media amplifies hatred.

I will, however, take a risk to speak about it here, in longer form content where I feel at least a little bit more content that it can hold a larger context. Not that anybody reads longer form content anymore. Which is a problem. Congratulations if you got this far.

I will go to Twitter and share this post, because Twitter can be a good pointer towards information, if not a great vector for discourse. Until our social media gets better, and until it is regulated in a way to make it less dangerous, it will be down to us to make better choices for ourselves, and hopefully, at least be another who refrains from making a terrible problem even worse.




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