How Bottom-Feeders May Be Accelerating Tribalism

Two events in this young week spur me to the keyboard. In the face of social media evangelists who see only the upside of increased global connections - new business models, micro-financing, etc. - we also see the dark side of humanity amplified. This is not a new observation, but when you add the prurient, voyeuristic human tendencies to the mix: we see the market for of information brokers who exist only to aggregate and disseminate the dark behaviors to live on the edges of social boundaries. Not the Reddits of the world, but those who aspire to replace broadcast media...often by scouring Reddit regularly.  These brokers, as I abuse multiple metaphors, bridge the grease traps of the commons with the daily newspaper of the iPad. A massacre in the Washington Navy Yard on Monday stole the lives of twelve, the early list of the dead tell stories of middle age and public service. Yesterday, during the rampage, you could follow #NavyYard and #NavyYardShooting on Twitter to get links to authoritative info, access to real-time rumors, and a front-row seat to journalists getting it wrong in spectacular style; at one point, broadcasting the wrong identity for the murderer. I should point out, this last mistake pales in comparison to a blogger who published a name as well - but there is a difference between an honest mistake (ID card found near the dead murderer*) and dashing off an entirely fake article with a Muslim-sounding name to reinforce a terrorist narrative.

*[I am aware that 'shooter' is the term of art for first-responders and law enforcement. It details both the threat and expected injuries. I feel that regular people should feel free to restore the passion to the terms used in times like these. Journalists may revel in the militarization of language, but life is not a television show.]

In addition, though, you could see the tribal boundaries. Gun advocates immediately mocked gun control advocates, because the killings (ongoing at the time of the snarky exchanges) happened in Washington DC, a locale with strict gun control laws. Gun control advocates were not any less opportunistic, asking "is now the time to talk about guns?" Again, I observed these while the killer was alive and ending souls. Anti-Obama folk argued that this was happening because the President has 'disarmed' the military. Spurred on by one noted conspiracy theorist, several voices declared this a 'false flag' operation (created by the Government to distract from something) - apparently because the murders were occurring on a Monday morning.

If you were glued to Twitter, you would begin to see these jarring messages overwhelm actual information. If you explored the individual Twitter pages for these tangential offerings, you would see an existing theme on each. They use any occasion to repeat their core message. The occasion of a mass murder was no more than encouragement to repeat this message, the tragedy just another data point in their ongoing screeds. If you only listened to broadcast media, you would be spared these voices. (You would still be subject to the inevitable mistakes made when broadcasters are forced to talk with no new information.)

Increasingly, there are information brokers who specialize in amplifying and re-broadcasting the fringe. This piece points out that because of these social aggregators - the flounder of the Internet - the main Google result for those wishing to learn more about the newly-crowned Miss America referred to the racist comments thrown her way. From Ms. Petri:

For decades, in the privacy of their living rooms, people have said ignorant things when something happened on TV. This is not news, even if the second-screen experience means that the living room now includes the equivalent of carving your offhand mutterings unalterably into stone.

People who are offended by the existence of non-white Americans or merely rooting for the "more American" candidate from Kansas were suddenly thrust into the spotlight. So much so that the young woman was confronted with their hatred at her morning 'press conference.' Her accomplishments overshadowed by the call to respond to these aggrieved racists - something she did with nobility and grace.  The fringe overwhelms the story.


Joachim Stroh is an immensely talented visual artist, who recently created the graphic here, demonstrating how communities overlap over time. Because the social Internet is truly a great thing at heart, I was able to interact and share my thoughts with him; that increased tribalism and retrenchment may be one unexpected outcome over time instead - and to his credit, he was trying to convey that as well in the final panel.  His point is that we are more aware of the other tribes. Another correspondent in that conversation offered that we may be able to "bury bold, primal divisions under layers of abstraction" by continuing to emphasize the commonalities rather than the divisions.  Allow the greater good to overcome human nature, is how I read that.

What I've been missing is the role of information brokers. We "know" broadcast media is dead, of course, even though it provides the links for the Twitterati during unfolding events. But the Listicle Media serves up a continuous stream: telling us how we are responding to the unfortunate choices of Ms. Cyrus; or how racists feel about the achievements of non-white people; or how the dark fringes of political tribes are absorbing any occasion to restate their litany; and of course, cat videos.

To what extent are these aggregators shaping how we view the world?  In a world where your friend's recommendations drive your consumption choices - are we ready to adopt the prism of the fringe to help us understand current events?  This leads me to ponder how the Syrian civil war is viewed in Washington DC almost entirely using a political lens, but I've gone on long enough today.