Humans are amazing, complex, frustrating creatures. Animals are predictable to a much higher degree of precision. They are driven by a small range of behavioral routines and physiological motivations, and tend to be limited to a smaller environment or habitat.
But humans? We’re a maddening mix of emotions, agency, ethics, and primal urges. We’re the only species that consistently shows an ability to act beneficently towards others against our own self-interest, while also plotting and carrying out the worst sorts of premeditated harm.
But more than that, we are infinitely clever, having both physical and mental adaptations that allow us to conceive, create, and leverage tools to impose our will on the world around us. The nature of tools is that they are neutral, and only carry the intent of the hand that wields them.
However, there’s one last factor to remember about humans: we’re often very, very bad at considering second- or nth-order outcomes. Our best intentions can blind us and cause as great of harm as being maliciously harmful. We believe that in possessing a tool, we can somehow guarantee its safe us in influencing the world around us. And so we create these tools for economic or social survival, without regard for how the worse angels of our nature might employ the tool.
Such is the nature of the topic in this article — “tools of (mis)understanding”.
Here, we’ll focus on one such tool: social media.
When we utilize a tool, we’re engaging a different part of our brains than where lower-order emotions and needs originate. Specifically, we activate the region of our brains known as the “inferior parietal lobule”, which is also the region most closely associated with analyzing non-verbal communication, language, and mathematical operations. Thus it follows that when we’re approaching a medium like social media from a utilitarian perspective, this is the region of the brain carrying the processing load. It is a “no emotion” zone, concerned with higher-order cognitive activities.
However, social media has a specific quality that makes it distinct from all other communication mediums — it’s both multimedia and multilateral. It’s a tool that provides its own feedback in real-time. It changes as we use it with intent. But it doesn’t just change according to our own use. It also acts as a vector for other people’s intent.
Moreover, the multisensory nature of it activates other regions of the brain, causing distraction from the logical task of tool-use and triggering a chemical rush of dopamine. And so to the unaware man or woman, that inbound intent riding on the back of audio-visual media is able to slide past our distracted logical filters and straight into our crocodile brains.
This has given rise to a pernicious new form of social harm — memetic evil. To avoid descending into a religious debate, we’ll define evil here as “malicious ignorance or deliberate action resulting in harm to others.’’ Now, there are two kinds of evil: passive and active.
Active evil is exactly that — active. It’s the deliberate use of tools, words, and actions to cause harm to oneself or others. And social media is an incredibly powerful tool for active evil. It’s the recruitment platform for radical terrorism. It’s the means by which global black markets for human, drug, and weapons trafficking are coordinated. It’s a primary tool of narrative manipulation by a media that is hostile to individual liberty.
Passive evil might be best described as casual indifference to the suffering of others, or malicious ignorance. A famous line from the cult-classic film Boondock Saints sums it up quite well:
“Now, we must all fear evil men. But, there is another kind of evil which we must fear most … and that is the indifference of good men!”
This is the nature of passive evil. It stands quietly by while all manner of harm comes to others. It’s at work when a bad idea gains memetic traction, but the ones who see it for what it is nonetheless choose to say “not my problem.” The thing is, done often enough and at a big enough scale, passive evil becomes active evil.
Here’s the thing about social media. Its business model — whether Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Snapshat, et cetera — is explicitly about attention. It’s an entire virtual world constructed to engage users physiologically and psychologically. It is designed to make the user a passive consumer, mindlessly scrolling and “engaging” through low-effort user-interface tricks such as clicking “Like”, “Share”, and “Retweet”. It requires logical effort to utilize social media as a tool. It takes no effort to engage emotionally. And so the active evil of others spreads itself at scale by leveraging the malicious ignorance and unblinking acceptance of evil by a majority of users.
The visual mediums of television and film made evil a little more culturally-familiar. Social media is how abhorrent evil has become mundane, or even defended and embraced by a vocal minority.
The world has never truly been ready for social media. Where once one crazy guy with evil ideas was limited in his ability to influence others, he now has a near-omnipotent platform from which to spread his darkness. The more shocking the content, the faster it spreads. The term is called “viral” for a reason — social media is a vector for the most outrageous and destructive memes we are capable of creating.
Our ingenuity has once again outpaced our discretion. But come hell or high water, we must fix it. Our survival depends on it.
Dum spiro spero,