How Social Media Algorithms Not Only Undermine Truth, They Make Social Polarization Almost Inevitable—With No Bad Actors Needed

In my recent book, Rethinking How We Think: Integrative Meta-perspective and the Cognitive “Growing Up” on Which Our Future Depends, I went into detail about the dangers of device addiction and what can be done to address this concern. Today attention is being given to a further digital media–related dynamic that could ultimately prove at least as dangerous, how social media algorithms—in just how they work—exacerbate social and political polarization.  

In Rethinking How We Think, I described how advertising-driven digital media in combination with machine learning algorithms creates a mix that requires no malevolence of intent to put us in major danger. By offering electronic substitutes for real fulfillment, our likes and clicks mimic the mechanisms of addiction (addictive substances work by providing the feedback that accompanies feelings like pleasure or power while requiring none of the vulnerability demanded for the real thing). It has been a dirty secret of high tech companies that they were optimizing programs for these addictive effects, but we would see this result even without their efforts. Simple optimization depends on hijacking our attention—a necessity that is multiplied many times over by the fact that sites are advertising driven. Addiction is a much more reliable way to get attention than providing content that actually benefits us. A related consequence is that social media algorithms inherently create distortion and “fake news.” It has been well documented that the soap opera of sensationalized content (and outright lies) is much more likely to attract eyeballs—and more likely to trigger search algorithms—than real news. 

Part of the reason for concern with addictive dynamics is simply that there is nothing more precious and central to meaning than our attention. Another is that there is no obvious way to counter the effect other than the advice that works with other kinds of addiction to “just say no.” George Orwell in his dystopian novel 1984 warned of Big Brother taking control of our minds. The real danger in the future may not be government manipulation, but artificial stimulation masquerading as substance and information being used in ways that ultimately disconnects us from real importance.

The further dynamic that I noted—the way social media is amplifying polarization—in potential dramatically amplifies these dangers. Very intelligent people are setting off alarm bells about this effect. Some are describing it as the primary driver of modern social divisions. (The Netflix film “The Social Dilemma” provides a good summary of this argument.) I think of it more as exacerbating more fundamental processes that had already been well underway. (You can see my recent article:  A Very Disturbing, and Dangerous, Situation—Political Polarization and Populism Run Amok.) But I find it of major concern. 

Again it does not require malevolence and easily sneaks up on us. Every time we make an on-line choice, the record of our choice then influences the kind of information that is sent to us. This might seem benign enough—even helpful. We only get the kind of information we have interest in. But it also means that different people more and more receive different information. We are pushed increasingly into silos of belief and that belief becomes evermore extreme and ideological. We don’t need Russian or Chinese hackers to set us against one another. We are doing it with our everyday on-line behavior.

At the very least, such mechanisms further undermine the sensibilities needed to recognize the essential questions on which our future depends and think with the needed sophistication. More deeply, it threatens the coherence of the social fabric and the societal structures that we have traditionally depended on. Arguably it puts the democratic experiment at risk. Certainly when placed in the context of destabilizing force already at work, it has this effect. I find myself thinking of a disease that has recently obliterated starfish colonies on the West coast of the US. It has the starfish literally pull themselves apart, leaving them in scattered pieces. 

Like with more basic addictive dynamics, there is no obvious way to counter these effects. Simple laws would not have the desired results. And the only ultimately effective option if social media companies wanted to accept the needed responsibility would be to give up their advertising–driven business model, something we are very unlikely to see. 

Put these dynamics together and we get a deeply troubling situation. People who are familiar with my work know that I go out of my way not to sensationalize. But I am comfortable saying that of the multiple issues that today have potentially catastrophic implications—including nuclear proliferation, climate change, and the risk of major pandemic—such dynamics have the highest likelihood of being our undoing. 

All this leaves us with the obvious question of just what can be done. The best the technology gurus have to offer as a solution is that something has to happen at a “cultural level.” On that I think they are right (though it is an observation that too easily lets technology companies off the hook when it comes to responsibility).

To get at how I think of that needed cultural level response, we can start with the addiction aspect of the dynamic. When I work with someone who is addicted to something like heroin, ultimately therapy depends on helping the person get in touch with real significance to replace the pseudo-significance the drug has provided. The person can then see clearly how the drug is highjacking their life and robbing them of the things that in fact most matter. The parallel at a cultural level must be an image of meaning, an image of advancement that can work for our time, that can be authentically compelling and sit in clear contrast to imposters. The fact that we can’t get rid of damaging effects by legislation or policy may not have the dead-end consequences we might imagine. The better way to do so is to create enough contrast that social media of the harmful sort get regarded as having little more significance than the afternoon soaps or professional wresting.  

I think of this sort of antidote as having both personal and institutional aspects. At a personal level, the kind of psychological changes that Creative Systems Theory describes with the concept of Cultural Maturity would be expected to make being exploited in this way increasingly unpalatable. (See Cultural Maturity: A Guidebook for the Future.) There would be a growing awareness of the importance of making better choices. In working with clients around this kind of question, I point out that there is nothing more precious than our attention. Whether our interest is personal well-being or our larger human future, as individuals we simply can’t let it be exploited and manipulated. 

More institutionally, we need social structures able to engage the important questions before us collectively with the needed maturity. One of the most striking characteristics of contemporary society is the degree we have lost trusted agents. Decades ago we had our Walter Cronkites and Edward R. Murrows who we could count on to at least make a effort to communicate the facts. With postmodern times and new communications technologies, many people celebrated that news would now finally be democratized—we could all be experts. Today we discover that the consequences are not at all what we might have hoped. There may be no more important question as far as our future well-being than what it might mean to again have trusted agents. They must be of a new sort. We must work together to establish and support sources of information and institutional structures we can count on. 

People reading this article might reasonably object that the more psychological/social antidotes that I am suggesting can’t be up to the task. And they might be right. But if they are we may be doomed. We could be seeing our human tool-making cleverness doing us in. My point is simply that there is a possible way forward. And as I’ve described in other writing, the basis for that possible way forward, Cultural Maturity’s needed “growing up” as a species, is as potential developmentally build into who we are. We need to appreciate both that the task is considerable and that at our best there is the possibility of successfully engaging it. 


Fill out the form below to receive monthly articles and updates from Charles Johnston, M.D.