I discovered comic books in college and continued to collect them into my thirties. I briefly became persona non grata in a segment of the creative community when I called out an independent author for running an abusive letter column. A little bit of a narcissist, he vented his spleen on his critics. When a young fan wrote a similar rant, the author had to back off when the boy explained that the attack was simply an homage to the author’s style.
Twenty years later, Microsoft introduced a “teenage” Artificial Intelligence system called Tay to reddit. In twenty-four hours, the system had successfully adopted the style of the forums it monitored, becoming an abusive, fascist misogynist.
Then in 2016 Facebook’s monetization of “click-bait” gave Macedonian fake-news sites disproportionate sway on our primary process, eclipsed only when we realized that Russia was leveraging the social network for espionage. In the aftermath of the resulting scandal, Facebook hired a Republican social media specialist to manage its political messaging policies.
Sarah Cavanaugh’s “Hivemind” weaves together interviews with leading researchers on the social effects of social media, looking to provide comfort and advice to screen huggers and those they alienate. Under that theme, however, lies a deeper question: how do we develop and nurture identity?
The book opens with a perspective that will be refreshing to the hypnotherapist: we aren’t who we think we are. A great deal of our behavior is buried in the subconscious realm, and often our reasons for what we do are only rationalizations. We may think that don’t work with minorities because they’re poorly educated – though that’s truly only because our parents forced their parents into low-income work. Underneath, our subconscious knows the truth: in our childhood hostility towards minorities was projected by the tone and gestures of adults. Identifying with them, those behaviors were internalized and are now passed on to our children.
It is this implicit well of attitudes and behaviors that Cavanaugh calls the “Hivemind.”
To those whose membership in a privileged group is denied or threatened, social media represents an opportunity for explicit expression of hostility toward those unlike us. Cavanaugh herself grew up in a middle-class culture rich with rituals that cemented communal bonds. For her, social media is a means of sustaining and enriching those bonds. In between are those foraging for meaning in the information hives on Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and Instagram. Unless they find a welcoming community, their unrewarded investment builds anxiety and depression. Cults and extremists methodically identify, cultivate and convert the vulnerable before exploiting their trust.
My opening vignettes reflect Cavanaugh’s conclusions: social media didn’t create the problem of polarization between peoples. Unfortunately, the platforms do not moderate strident voices, but rather project them globally. The concentration of power in the industry also makes us vulnerable to manipulation by institutional actors.
Reading as a hypnotherapist, however, I was sensitive throughout to the topic of identity formation. Large sections of the book are concerned with bias as it defines our circle of concern. Cavanaugh’s anatomy includes in-group and out-group bias, but also upward and downward bias. She focuses on the antidote of reappraisal: When that automatic thought arises, ask “what other explanation is possible?”
But there are equally important points made in passing. Youth suffer less from their own social media obsessions than they do from the obsessions of their parents. Responding to the greater visibility of cults and extremists, those obsessed parents are also paranoid and so deny their children the communal rituals celebrated by Cavanaugh. Social media allows youth a healthy opportunity to define their identity in relationship with those that matter the most: their peers. Perhaps after a generation of desensitization to information overload, as parents those children will define more reasonable boundaries for their children (Cavanaugh extols the “free range” movement).
Cavanaugh is an atheist, teaching and researching at a Catholic university. If I would express a disappointment in this book, it is that her associations have not brought her to consider the power of spirituality in the formation of identity. Perhaps it’s her atheism – most people associate spirituality with religion. My understanding of spirituality is directly related to Cavanaugh’s thesis, however: it’s the negotiation of the boundaries between “I” and “we.”
This is the antidote to social media obsession in youth: parents must take time to ask them “How does that make YOU feel?” Cults and extremists are evil because they deny their victims a separate identity: it’s all “we” and no “me.”
Once we start down the spiritual road, however, we cannot avoid seeing ourselves in the mirror. Identity is about who “I” am. How do we make room for the other?
In her concluding chapter, Cavanaugh offers prescriptions that cover hope, fear, gratitude, and anger. Those are all psychological strongholds. But as an individual the other enters authentically only through one doorway, and that doorway is unconditional love.
I’d like Cavanaugh to consider the Bible from that perspective, and perhaps revisit her conclusions. When as a scientist I undertook that assessment, I was compelled to write “The Soul Comes First.”
You see, the Holy Spirit was the original social network, and comes with the guarantee of amplifying only ideas that serve love. Facebook and the like are poor substitutes.