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On Social Media, We’re All Contagious

Are you a helper or a crusader? Your choices matter more than you think.

“Think of people as people, not as abstractions,” writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie urged Harvard’s graduating class of 2018. People are “fragile, imperfect, with prides that can be wounded and hearts that can be touched,” she said.

I wonder how she thinks we’re doing.

During a time of unprecedented social isolation, we’ve moved more of our social lives online, where we seem more likely to think of people as abstractions. And “social media is how people engage with moral issues these days,” according to research by NYU psychologist Jay Van Bavel and his co-authors. “Our moods, thoughts, and actions are shaped by the entire network of individuals with whom we share direct and indirect relationships,” he says. “We often develop similar ideas and intuitions as others because we are socially connected to them.”

Translation: We don’t need a virus to be contagious.

In April, I attended a Zoom funeral for a friend's daughter. People spoke from their living rooms about the transformative effect the recently deceased mother of three had on those who knew her. What struck me was that her outlook, her habits, and her ideas were infectious. She changed how her friends and family thought about parenting, about friendship, about service, about love... and that changed the people around them, which affected the people around them. Her life had a ripple effect.

As extraordinary as she was, we all have this kind of effect. Obesity (and weight loss) are contagious. Smoking (and smoking cessation) are contagious. Voting is contagious. Divorce is contagious. Drinking is contagious. And so is hoarding toilet paper.

Behaviors, attitudes, ideas, and emotions, as social scientist and public health expert Nicholas Christakis puts it, “have a collective existence.” Christakis, along with James Fowler, co-author of their book, Connected, found that moods and behaviors ripple through social networks to three degrees of separation.

For example, you are roughly 15% more likely to be happy if you have a friend who is happy, 10% more likely to be happy if you have a friend who has a happy friend, and 6% more likely to be happy if you have a friend whose friend has a happy friend.

Which brings us to our current predicament. The willingness to dehumanize, humiliate, and ruin people’s lives is also contagious. As I recently wrote, “If you are not disgusted and repulsed by those who fail purity tests, if you do not feel contempt for them and are not willing to condemn, humiliate, and shame them, you are [considered] as odious as they are.”

When our networks are seeded with contempt, anger, and disgust — a particularly toxic combination that promotes dehumanization and even violence — moral outrage and a demand for moral purity will spread and magnify.

The feeling of fighting an evil enemy promotes solidarity and a powerful sense of belonging. But that enhanced feeling of “us,” as compelling as it is, also allows for a kind of deindividuation that can amplify the darker impulses that solidarity can inspire, including a willingness to engage in behaviors that in isolation might not seem so bad, but as part of a bigger program, they violate our own moral code. “Our minds have evolved to think about the effects of our individual actions,” say Yale psychologist Paul Bloom and Ph.D. candidate Matthew Jordan. “It’s hard to consider aggregate effects.” They call this the tendency to be “harmless torturers.”

This is also a time when we are all hypersensitive to viral contagion and as a result, our sensitivity to moral contagion is heightened. Taken together, this all creates an ideal setting for a crusade. And that may be why there's now an online campaign to “expose” morally impure children, teens, and college students.

Twitter screenshot
Source: Twitter screenshot

An 18-year old actress with more than a half a million Twitter followers is encouraging her young fans to tweet her “the receipts” so she can “expose” young people who meet her definition of a racist, along with personal information. She specifically asked for the names of the schools they attend (or intend to attend).

Some of the posts she broadcasts are legitimately shocking. It’s horrific to see young people posting comments that reveal personal prejudice, discriminatory attitudes, and hostility toward others on the basis of race — all things that constitute the most commonly understood definition of racism.

But some young people who are being “exposed” to her half-million followers are very young, and some of the “racist” posts are questionable.

Two targets of her wrath appear to have been 12 years old when they made an offensive post — over a year ago. One responded to the other with “guacamole n*gga penis,” a non-sequitur meme that first appeared online in 2018. The actress publicized the two 13-year-olds’ tweets along with a phone number and where they planned to attend 9th grade.

Twitter screenshot
Source: Twitter screenshot

For targeting the 13-year-olds, it appears that the actress’s Twitter account was temporarily suspended. She later apologized for not knowing about the guacamole meme, but quickly picked up where she left off.

Most of us have an astonishingly low level of doubt about the rightness of our views and the righteousness of our moral outrage. (The crusading actress calls herself “an advocate for anti-bullying.”) When we surround ourselves with people who share our views, we become even more certain and more extreme in our positions. We also become more prone to groupthink, less rigorous in our thinking, more credulous, and less tolerant of both opposing views and the people who hold them. And we become more willing to dehumanize, demean, ridicule, and revile. We look for crusaders and we crusade, too.

Kids who supply the actress with these “receipts” could privately send this information to the schools in question. But social media is a vehicle for moral grandstanding, virtue signaling, and public humiliation, none of which is available by privately alerting schools about a student. And engaging in public shaming makes us seem more trustworthy to our in-group.

The actress has been applauded for her crusade. “I am so proud of you,” one of her famous (adult) followers tweeted, “The good work you’re doing exposing all these ‘baby’ racists will ensure that their names, faces & deeds will be known as they enter the work force down the line.” The fashion magazines Teen Vogue and Instyle both published laudatory articles, and Entertainment Tonight described her as “brave.”

The idea that young people engage in truly racist thinking is extremely troubling, to say the least. The crusade to publicly humiliate them, however, is concerning because most of us think of bigotry as an unmitigated evil, and as a result, we can tend to think of those we see as racists as less than human. They are “garbage,” “vermin,” and “monsters.” Even if they are children.

When people describe others as subhuman, says Susan Benesch, a human rights lawyer who researches the role of speech in inspiring violence, those same people are more likely to endorse violence against them. Remember when writer Reza Aslan tweeted about a high school boy's “punchable face?” How punchable is a boy who posts memes that include the word “n*gga?” What about a teen who questions whether the Black Lives Matter movement is truly about black lives mattering?

During this time of uncertainty, we are physically separated, ideologically polarized, spending more time online, and primed to purge anyone we see as morally contaminated. It can seem like the fabric of our democracy is ripping apart while prospects for coming together look bleak.

Maybe because in times of uncertainty we can become nostalgic, I've been thinking about Mister Rogers, an indelible part of childhood for my generation. He used to say “Look for the helpers.” As quaint as it may seem, he was onto something. When crusaders have the chance to help instead of punish, they tend to help. And when that happens, helping becomes the stronger signal of trustworthiness, which leads more people to choose helping over punishing.

At that Zoom funeral, I learned that my friend's daughter had a particular fondness for a quote from George Eliot’s Middlemarch: What do we live for, if it is not to make life less difficult to each other?

If we seed our networks with that sentiment, perhaps we can begin to heal.

Artwork by Pamela Paresky (inspired by the proposed Statue of Responsibility)
Source: Artwork by Pamela Paresky (inspired by the proposed Statue of Responsibility)

Pamela Paresky served as primary researcher and in-house editor for the New York Times bestseller, The Coddling of the American Mind. Her opinions are her own and should not be considered official positions of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education or any other organization with which she is affiliated.

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