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Democracy Works: How to depolarize social media

Chris Bail
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Chris Bail

In an era of increasing social isolation, platforms like Facebook and Twitter are among the most important tools we have to understand each other. We use social media as a mirror to decipher our place in society but, as Chris Bail explains, it functions more like a prism that distorts our identities, empowers status-seeking extremists, and renders moderates all but invisible.

Bail's book, "Breaking the Social Media Prism," challenges common myths about echo chambers, foreign misinformation campaigns, and radicalizing algorithms, revealing that the solution to political tribalism lies deep inside ourselves. Drawing on innovative online experiments and in-depth interviews with social media users from across the political spectrum, this book explains why stepping outside of our echo chambers can make us more polarized, not less.

Bail is professor of sociology and public policy at Duke University, where he directs the Polarization Lab. He is the author of "Terrified: How Anti-Muslim Fringe Organizations Became Mainstream."

Episode Transcript

Chris Beem
From the McCourtney Institute for Democracy at Penn State University, I'm Chris Beem.

Candis Watts Smith
I'm Candis Watts Smith

Jenna Spinelle
I'm Jenna Spinelle, and welcome to Democracy Works. This week, we are talking with Chris Bail, a professor of sociology, public policy and data science at Duke University director of the polarization lab at Duke, and author of the new book breaking the social media prism, how to make our platforms less polarizing. And, you know, we've talked about social media many times on this show before, but what I thought was interesting about this book was that it really brings the human element into it and doesn't focus so much on the algorithms or what the platforms are not or could not or should not be doing. He really looks at how social media sort of brings about some of our qualities as humans, and also the ways that social media kind of distorts this picture of reality that we have. And that's how he gets into this social media prism concept.

Candis Watts Smith
I'm thrilled that Chris was able to join us as one of my colleagues at Duke. And what I got out of it is, you know, like, the idea that the social medium, the social media, prism is the idea that, you know, like, when we look at social media, it just all looks very wild. It's a very distorted view of reality. And it seems to exaggerate extremism and mute moderation. And that sounds about right, when we look at you know, I'm mostly on Twitter, I don't Facebook or Snapchat, my mom is into tick tock now. But you know, just as a Twitter or person, yeah, you can see, I can see, you know, what he's talking about, about how extremism gets exaggerated, and how people who might feel somewhere in the middle feel moderate might not want to get involved. And you know, the other thing about it, though, is like moderate moderation, are also not, you know, necessarily popular words right now.

Chris Beem 
He says that people look to the evidence they see on social media, to define the other party, and to define what the other party wants, thinks behaves and how they regard the people who are doing the regarding right. So what do they think about me, and in every case, social media exaggerates the more extreme point of view, and the the meanness of what people think about the other party. And so if I'm a Republican, and I'm seeing what social media understands about me, as a Republican, I'm not going to like it, and it's going to make me react to Democrats, and vice versa. And so that's part of the prism as well, that there's this distortion that we all of us see about the other side, about what the other side thinks about what the other side thinks about us. And he thinks that the data show that on policy, at least, those differences are not that far apart. And so that's yet another way in which the prison distorts.

Candis Watts Smith 
He mentioned that most. You know, we've talked on other episodes about how on policy, if we ask people what they think about some number of policy issues, people across the aisle and people identify as Democrats and as Republicans come to pretty much similar, you know, policy preferences. But when you walk into social media, and 75% of the tweets about politics are produced by 6% of people who are extremists, then yeah, you get like a really, you know, bent idea about what the other side, you know, the other side, and I'm putting that, I guess, in air quotes, is thinking about right thinking about politics and thinking about you and thinking about your group, because now partisanship is just one of his now like, not only kind of like bedrock predisposition, but it's also, you know, a salient identity. And so, you know, we have teams and we have to fight for our team.

Jenna Spinelle
Well, and it also gets I think, a question that I had and something we talked about in the interview is what exactly does he mean by a moderate? I think that there's several ways that that word is used in political discussions. In one definition, it's perhaps someone who is so interest in their beliefs. But in another way of looking at it, it's people, you know, maybe who do have what we would consider to be very strong partisan beliefs, but just don't feel the need to like, go shouting them from the rooftops on social media or other places.

Chris Beem
I mean, Liz Cheney is not a moderate, right. She's a very, you know, fairly extreme conservative. But she believes in democracy, she believes in institutions, and she believes in the rule of law, and for many Republicans, that is sufficient to be labeled as a moderate. And there are other people who are genuinely like, kind of center, like, you know, Joe Manchin, you would argue is, you know, at least on most issues, genuinely, in this center, there's not a lot of people there in politics. And that's, you know, that has very little to do with social media that has to do with incentives for politicians with regards to primaries, etc, etc, etc. I don't think we need to get down that rabbit hole, at least not now. But I do think this notion of what do you mean by moderate? And, you know, who do we have to be moderate to, right? I mean, if somebody is saying vile, despicable things online, what do we owe this person? You know, what would moderation require of us in terms of how we respond, and so it's not obvious to me, and not simple to me, what it means to say, moderation and what circumstances, moderation is a goal that we should set for our own behavior.

Candis Watts Smith 
Maybe the other question is, what has to happen in order for moderation, for us to work towards that, like one of those things, from my perspective, is that there have to be multiple, there have to be an assumption that, you know, all sides involved, have ideas that are worthy of discussion. And so I think that that's what you're kind of getting at about, like, Well, who do we have to moderate to, we have to first have a, you know, a place where Group A has a group of ideas that we can contend with. And groobie has a group of ideas, different ideas that we can contend with. But when we have right now, but we have very much so is one group that actually did not put forward a policy platform, and the most recent, their most recent national meeting. And so what are we working in toward? If you know, if both sides I guess I always I hate saying both sides, but both sides don't have ideas that are worthy of discussion

Chris Beem 
And I think it is worth, you know, insisting that, you know, ethics in a democracy cannot be one sided, it must be reciprocal. Otherwise, it just simply cannot work. So it does, I think, in that sense, you know, reflect the prism he's talking about, right, that just makes it harder for this to happen. So, I don't know, I think this is a good opportunity to bring in Jenna's interview, what do you think

Jenna Spinelle
I could not agree more, we brought it all the way back around to where we started with the prism. And I think you'll hear in the interview, Chris talks both about the distinction between elites and everyday citizens. And I think he has some ideas based on the work he's done for how to change social media for both groups. So let's go now to the interview.

Jenna Spinelle

Chris Bail, welcome to Democracy Works. Thanks so much for joining us today.

Chris Bail
Hey, thanks for having me.

Jenna Spinelle
I want to start with the notion of the echo chamber. This is where you kind of start your book and you know, it's become something of conventional wisdom in conversation about how to fix democracy that one of the first things you have to do is break out of your echo chamber. We have heard that on this show lots and lots of times before, but I think your research shows that that kind of distinction, or that path from breaking out of an echo chamber to behavior that is less polarizing or better for democracy is perhaps not as clear cut as it might seem.

Chris Bail
Yeah, I mean, this is certainly I think one of the most popular ideas out there. I myself, you know, when I first started doing research in this area, I really thought the echo chamber nicely describes our current situation, right, we can't understand each other because we're simply not listening to each other, we develop a kind of myopia and fail to see that there's two sides to every story. And then, you know, we get surprised by things like, you know, the election of Trump, or if you're in the UK, the Brexit referendum maybe. And, you know, the problem is, the evidence really doesn't support this idea. So, in 2017, we launched a large study where we paid a large group of Twitter users to kind of step outside their echo chamber for a month by following some Twitter bots, that our lab built that at Duke. And, of course, we were hoping that these bots, which were exposing people to messages from the other side, you know, politicians, journalists, media organizations, advocacy groups, would make them more moderate. And instead, what we found is that nobody really seemed to become more moderate, and many people seem to become more entrenched in their pre existing views.

Jenna Spinelle
Yeah, and can you just describe what you mean, by moderate? I think there are several ways it's used, sometimes one is like, a more of a centrist point of view. But the other is just having, you know, strong partisan beliefs, but not maybe being as fanatical about them or, you know, something along those lines.

Chris Bail
Yeah, I think that's a really good distinction. You know, certainly, I think moderation has a bad name right now. I mean, you look at anyone in Congress or the Senate, and it's a lonely place to be in the middle, right. There's not a lot of people happy with moderates right now. But I think you're right, like, you know, we could think of it as people who are civil and willing to engage or people who are actually changing their opinions to move more towards the other side. And I tend to think of it more in terms of the ladder and think about, you know, echo chambers is perhaps, moving us closer to each other if we can step outside of them.

Jenna Spinelle
Right, because there is a thread of, you know, when you ask, you know, political scientists and others what it means to live to have a healthy functioning democracy, it's not always necessarily that everybody agrees on everything. It's that, you know, instead, you recognize your opposition as legitimates. And, you know, did do the solutions and some of the things that that you've been working on what they get us closer to that type of outcome?

Chris Bail 
Well, I think a big problem, you know, that we have right now is we think that when we step outside our echo chamber, we're getting exposed to a competition of ideas, right? Like this is the idea that I think motivates Mark Zuckerberg, maybe Jack Dorsey, historically, and a lot of politicians, right that we if we step outside our echo chamber, we get to hear about a lot of different ideas that maybe we hadn't thought about before, you know, challenge some of our assumptions. But really, what we found is we did a deep dive into people following these bots and looked at the content that our bots were retweeting is that most people don't really focus on the content of ideas. Instead, they experienced stepping outside their echo chamber as more of an assault upon their identity. And that's because so much of our political conversation has become uncivil and has become really ad hominem. And so paradoxical, you know, taking people outside their echo chamber, can actually, you know, make them feel like they've entered a war, and they have to choose a side. And then they wind up arguing more, rather than, you know, engaging in a competition of ideas. They're really kind of engaging in a competition of identities. That's what our research shows.

Jenna Spinelle
These online identities don't just like, you know, materialize out of nowhere or like fall down from the sky. There's, you also, I think, look at, you know, what motivates people to engage in this kind of discourse online. And this is, I think, where your research and it kind of makes sense, perhaps, given that you're a sociologist, but you know, so much of the conversation about Social Media and Democracy is focused on the algorithms and like the technical side of it, but you look at the human side of it. So tell us about, you know, where this online, this extreme partisan ideology online comes from, how it perhaps connects or doesn't connect to our lives outside of social media?

Chris Bail 
Yeah, it's a great question. You know, I think in years of studying this stuff, I would love to say that There's a simple fix, you know, you can tweak this algorithm or that, you know, there's some other simple regulations that could be put in place that would, you know, really fix our current problem. But I've become more and more convinced over years of studying this stuff that, you know, social media is not so much polarizing us as much as it's making us more aware of the depth of our misunderstanding and anger toward each other. In other words, we have a supply side problem, like there's lots of angry people out there and social media is allowing them to be much more vocal. And I think you're right, interesting question, especially sociologically speaking, is what motivates people to kind of endlessly you know, post vitriol into the ether, you know, why are we all doing this, and not all of us, but a lot, a small group of people, right, are really adamant. And, you know, I think it harkens back to some classic theories in the social sciences, you know, namely, like, if we think about what makes us distinctive as human beings, it's our tendency to care so much about what other people think about us, and to try to cultivate identities that make us feel good about ourselves, or give us a sense of social status. You know, we've known we do this, we've done we do this for centuries, right? That we kind of all experiment with different ways of presenting ourselves or different kinds of identities, and then look around our environment to see which kind of which ones are working, which ones, you know, give us that sense of social status. And so we know human beings are really bad at doing this, we tend to miss read the reactions of others. And so I think the interesting question is, how is social media shaping this process, and, you know, on the one hand, it's allowed very isolated people to make connections that they would never make. And you know, this could potentially be a good thing. But it could also allow people to really try to cultivate identities that give them a sense of status, regardless if it's deleterious to democracy or the rest of us. And I think that there's a perverse kind of incentive for status on social media right now. And that's what we all want, in the end, I think, at some sense of self worth and status. And so you have, I think, a small group of fairly extreme people who are engaging in this type of uncivil behavior we were talking about earlier. And then a much larger group of more moderate or, you know, people who are perhaps more civil, but certainly have less extreme opinions, who can seem invisible on social media. And the combination creates what I call the social media prism, you know, our tendency to misunderstand the preponderance of extremists on the other side, on our platforms as representative of the other side. And that makes us all feel much more polarized than we really are.

Jenna Spinelle
I think one of the things I kept thinking about as I read your book was a lot of the activity that we've seen at school board meetings and city council meetings, fights over masks and COVID policies and these types of things. In some ways, it seems to me that is like the offline manifestation of how we talk to each other on social media, right? People are saying things for each other that they would never have thought about saying even as recently as a couple of years ago, I mean, how do you think about things like that, and again, knowing that the examples that we see on the news on social media are the most extreme, I'm also trying to keep that in my mind, as well, as you're just saying, but you know, how do you think about situations like that in the context of this online offline gap you were just describing?

Chris Bail
Yeah, well, first of all, I do it too. Like, you know, having studied this stuff, I can slip back into, you know, tube scrolling, or whatever you want to call it, right. It's easy to do. And but one thing that really helped me was doing this research and specifically doing some in depth, interview based research, where we really got to know people as they were using social media at a really deep level. And the story that sticks with me most from all this research is a guy that I write about in the book, who I call Ray, and this guy, you know, when you meet him in, you know, in real life, he's, you know, he's, he's a really polite guy, super civil, goes out of his way to say, you know, he avoids discussions of polarizing issue. You know, it says it's, you know, doesn't he's not racist, this that the other, he's moderately conservative, he'll tell you, but he's, you know, he's generally, you know, thinks of himself as a really civil guy. And then we begin to crack. You know, this guy raised behavior online and discover that each night he's producing 10 to 12 memes that describe and depict liberal leaders like Nancy Pelosi or Alexandria Ocasio Cortes, in the most awful unspeakable vile imagery. And you know, the question arises like You know, why what? How does he turn from Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde every night. And what we discovered is, you know, he's actually a deeply lonely and isolated person. He's a, he's a republican man who lives in a very liberal city. He works in a very liberal profession. And you know, he's also kind of isolated in his personal life, he, you know, he's a middle aged man who lives with his mother. And so, you know, it really harkens back to this question of status, you know, like, this guy, Ray, and maybe some of the people at the council meetings are the, you know, the loudest people are really deriving something from this type of performative behavior. They're getting a sense of belonging, however perverse and however, driven by other extremists. That's really awful for the rest of us. So I think, you know, putting the social media performance in context of the offline behavior is just vital.

Jenna Spinelle 
Let's talk for a minute about some of the moderates as you describe them in the book, as you said, you know, it's it's a very small portion of social media users that are creating this extreme content. And you say that, you know, it's kind of the on the other side of the coin, social media really mutes moderates. What What do you mean by that?

Chris Bail 
Yeah, you know, I'll tell you another story. If I made the you know, and here are the one that sticks out to me most is a woman, I call Sarah in the book. And she's a very moderate conservative woman, you know, she, she went to an Ivy League school, you know, she reads the New York Times, even though she doesn't agree with it all the time. And you know, her father was a police officer, she's half Puerto Rican, she grew up in New York City. You know, she has very complex views about things like race and policing that I personally think would be really productive to hear in our public conversation, which is, of course, you know, as we discussed, like, dominated by the extremes. And you know, you'll never hear her talk about politics on Twitter. And here's why. You know, when we first met everybody in this study, we asked them a few questions. Tell us tell us what happened last time you were on social media or a significant thing that recently happened on social media? She says, Well, you know, about a month ago, I was up late at night, an NRA National Rifle Association post came through my feed, I saw a lot of people piling on on it. And you know, the post to her was pretty innocuous is something about Americans rights to own guns, and you know, her father's police officer, her husband owned a firearm in practice responsibly, she said at a local firing range, you know, in a replied to the NRA post, and she says, within minutes, you know, people had scrolled through her timeline discovered that she had kids and replied to her comment, we hope your kids find your gun and shoot you. And I think this is the kind of absolute like her horrific, you know, thread or kind of comment that, that makes a lot of moderate people say, Hey, why am I why bother? You know, like, why am I even in you know, this is, by the way, this is risky. Someone's talking about my kids, you know, and so Sarah, like, a lot of other people, you know, deleted her account after that she eventually came back, because she, you know, wanted to keep in touch of family and things like that. But this experience, you know, was was pretty harrowing for her. And I think like, you know, for other people, it's not so much the random internet poster, but maybe it's, you know, that conservative uncle you have who will it it'll make Thanksgiving dinner, complicated if you go on about politics on Facebook. And so a lot of people think, you know, this hard fought status that I've won, and in my life, you know, in my career, and my family, you know, people who are deriving their social status, and kind of more, I guess, you could say conventional ways and have solid connections don't want to compromise those connections, by getting into divisive issues with polarizing people online.

Jenna Spinelle
You know, how much of that results were necessitates a different type of social media platform. I think one problem you point to in the book is that the platforms as they are currently structured, don't allow for deliberation. And we know from, you know, a different arm of democracy, research, democratic deliberation, that you know, you the this has worked the best when people can come together. I think historically, it's been face to face but there's a lot of people out there who are trying to figure out how to recreate that face to face deliberation on Online? Is that kind of the direction you see things needing to go to really create that space you were describing?

Chris Bail 
Yeah, look, I think face to face deliberation, it's great that we have evidence that, you know, brief 15 minute conversations between Republicans and Democrats can improve their attitudes towards each other dramatically, even just 15 minutes of an in person conversation. The problem is that these in person conversations are becoming increasingly rare. You know, we we know, now, through recent, you know, very granular analyses of geographic data that increasingly, Republicans and Democrats are living in different areas, that country, but also as we follow them, you know, across their day to day lives, you know, really very few opportunities to connect with each other. And I think the big problem, then is that, well, social media is going to fill that void, especially if we turn our attention to young people who are online in droves, right, and spending most of their time, for better or worse, and maybe for worse, online. And so, you know, for my money, if we want to improve, you know, our capacity to find common solutions reach, you know, some level of mutual understanding, it has to happen, at least in part in the digital space. And so, yeah, I think a really important question is, you know, how if we could redesign social media from scratch, and maybe learn from social science and other kinds of experimentation, you know, how would we design it to be less polarizing and more productive? And, and that's a line of research that we began about three years ago in the polarization lab that I, that I direct at Duke University, where, you know, we decided, you know, look, we're early on in the story of social media. And we really don't have the fundamental research to know how different types of social media shape human behavior. And so many of us researchers would like to waltz into Facebook and say, let me pull this lever. Let me tweak this algorithm, let me do this.

Jenna Spinelle 
And so tell me how that works. What is the platform look like? How did it differ from the experience that we know from the current state of social media?

Chris Bail 
Yeah, well, you know, one of the levers that we were really curious to poll was anonymity. You know, we know from watching that first study I was describing earlier, where we paid people to step outside their echo chamber, that really, it seems to be a competition of identities online, and not a competition of ideas, right. And so what you'd love to do, I think, is to find some way where you could, you know, encourage people to put their ideas before their identities. Now, anonymity has a bad name, you know, it's, it's, I think we all had have had an experience like that woman, Sarah was describing earlier, with someone who's kind of maybe anonymous, or semi anonymous, who says something like you said earlier that they would never say in real life. But on the other hand, anonymity also gives us the freedom to explore unpopular ideas, or maybe politically incorrect ideas, if you like, outside the context of peer pressure or peer influence. And so you know, we decided to run this study where we, we paid people to use our social media platform. And in the experiment, some people talk anonymously with a member of the other political party, they didn't know they were going to do this when they started the study. But we asked them to talk about it either immigration or gun control in a kind of anonymous social media platform format for about an hour. And, you know, this really could have gone either way, right, we could have, you can imagine it could have gotten been very uncivil, and just been to another place online, where people kind of air their grievances. But instead, we were really surprised, or somewhat surprised to discover that, you know, the, the average trend was actually in the opposite direction. Most people who engaged anonymously with a member of the other party tended to depolarize. And really interesting to me is that the size of this effect was about four to six times larger for Republicans, the Republicans who use the platform, to talk anonymously with a Democrat, became even more, you know, open to Democrats ideas, and I think, for me, that suggests that, you know, so much of the current problem is that, you know, people fear retribution from their own side, you know, if you're a Republican who maybe isn't really convinced about the evidence on voter fraud, or if you're a Democrat who was, you know, maybe a little worried about defunding the police, you know, during during recent events, you might not want to voice those views online, right, because not only will it make complicate, you know, things with the other side, but especially with your own side, your right where are you, you may fear retribution from people who think you're kind of a sellout or to moderate or not really a Republican or not really a Democrat and so on.

Jenna Spinelle
Right So where do you see this work going moving forward? Do you plan to continue developing this platform? Or do you have other projects in the works that will continue to perhaps pull on some different threads?

Chris Bail 
So one of the other ideas that I'm really bullish on right now, is that there is a simple algorithmic Twitter, I said, there's no single algorithm that will fix everything. But I think algorithms can also change the incentive structure. You know, it's, as we know, a lot of social media companies, and it's one of the the Wall Street Journal Facebook files, documents just showed, tend to upvote posts that get a lot of engagement, you know, Sofia post gets a lot of comments, it's gonna get seen earlier in the newsfeed by people. And, you know, that doesn't have to be the case, right? You could imagine a social media company boosting, not content that got a lot of comments among people who are example, preaching to the choir, but content that lots of different people like. So, you know, imagine if your newsfeed was filled with stories that both Republican and Democrats like or both, you know, men and women like or both, you know, any kind of social division really, and that kind of simple, you know, architecture chain, you could imagine social media could begin to kind of optimize for democracy and find consensus, instead of promoting division. And in the polarization lab, you know, we've we've been working with platforms to try to encourage them to implement this type of solution. But in the meantime, we've also created what we like to call middleware technology, or technology you can use in tandem with social media sites, that will help you kind of change your social media empower you to change your social media experience yourself. So we maintain a bipartisanship leaderboard, where you can see the types of people who are producing this kind of content, and we've built bots that you can follow that will kind of automatically expose you to this type of content. And, you know, the hope is that by empowering users, we can produce a more productive debate, but also a more reflective group of social media users. So we also have tools that allow you to compare your online versus offline kind of identity, and also help you avoid extremist and trolls and, and find better ways of connecting with the with the other side.

Jenna Spinelle 
Well, Chris, you know, reading your book has inspired me, I am one of those moderates you describe it doesn't really post about politics on social media. So it it has inspired me to think about how I might dip my toe in the water. And hopefully the book in this, this conversation will help our other listeners maybe consider doing the same thing. So thank you for this work. And thank you for joining us today to talk about it.

Chris Bail
Hey, thanks so much for having me. It's been a pleasure.

Chris Beem
All right. Well, yeah, that was really, really good, and really laid out the issues really well. Candace, I wanted to just start by, you know, in terms of kind of evaluating his analysis, thinking about his analysis, the one thing that I keep coming back to as kind of representative of this whole phenomenon, and kind of just how messed up our world is right now is this guy, he talks about Ray, and Jenna asked him about it in the interview. This guy Ray is personably in person, a really nice guy. He is he's open to other people. He's courteous. He's, he's even almost generous in some ways. And it online, this guy is vile, just does stuff. And in the book, it kind of like lays out some of the stuff and it is vile, right? And how do you put that together? What is it about Ray as an individual that allows for this kind of creepy bifurcation of who he is and what he thinks is legitimate behavior. And what is it about social media that makes him incentivizes that behavior and makes him think that that kind of behavior is okay. I mean, I just think that's really kind of at the at the core Have Chris's argument.

Candis Watts Smith
So for me, actually what I got out of stories like Ray and other, you know, like, they're like he mentioned, there's, you know, this moderate Puerto Rican woman who's, you know, husband or dad as a police officer. To me, what I kind of took away from what Chris is saying in the book is that social media is an is not special, that social media is a space that provides a set of incentives where human beings do their human being things, right. I mean, there's still incentive structures, there's still social identity, there's still the need for status, there's still all of these things. I think that there are many people Mike Rea, on social media. But he doesn't seem to be a representative person of that his response. I don't know if it's representative of the billions of people who are on social media. I think one of the reasons why we're having this conversation is because, right, so just as Chris says, moderation is muted. It's not that it's not there. It's not that people who are normal, nice, sane people in real life and on social media aren't there. It's that raise tweets, raise memes, get a lot of attention, and swirl around, it takes up more space than is representative of the actual populations, attitudes, preferences, ways of being. But the thing about that is, is that, you know, if it's just like, 1%, I think Zuckerberg was like, Well, only 1% of you know, the stuff on Facebook is Miss Information disinformation. The issue is, is that like, it's poison. And that little bit poisons the well, that's, that seems to be the issue at hand for me, is that a few rays is bad for us all. And so, you know, then the question becomes, how do we mitigate the kind of material that a ray in the world once to circulating,

Chris Beem
I think there is a degree of this kind of absence of moderation that is baked in to the Trumpian Republican brand. And I think you see that I mean, but once that genie is out of the bottle, it is human nature, for people to respond in kind, the defense aggress response is as basic anytime you seen an animal, two dogs bark at each other. This is basic, to manmade alien behavior. And we are mammals. And this is how we behave to. And so when you loose these constraints on moderation, it's not that far until people are just shouting at each other. And hopefully, that's all

Candis Watts Smith 
I would like to believe that we're just a little bit more evolved than that. One of the things that Chris mentioned is that, you know, people kind of derive something from this kind of performative behavior. And when he said that, it made me think of something that Christina Beltran wrote, she has a small book called, like, citizenship as cruelty, I think, is what it's called. But there she discusses this idea that historically, and that's why I don't think that I think that there's some parts of social media that aren't special that she talks about, you know, historically, part of being a good white citizen in this country, was to be cruel to others. And over time, where and who, like where we could be cruel, cruel, we can be cruel to has really been increasingly constrained. But it seems that we are right and so you can think about like, and I'm not trying to, I'm not trying to make you know, you know, like I'm not saying these two are the same, but we can think about like, lynching picnics, right, like it's performing, if people are doing it as a group, right. It's part of it. community building. Or recently, I was looking at some of the photos from like Sims. And there are the people who are sitting, we always kind of focus on the people who are sitting. But there's another part of the picture. And it's people who are yelling. And like, there's like this kind of performative cruelty that people get derive some sort of pleasure from, they derive some sort of belonging, right. And so for me, it seems like social media is just a new space for people to work that out, work out that identity work out that desire to be cruel, as part of, you know, they're like, were a part of their status, part of their their understanding of what their citizenship means their privilege, their rights.

Chris Beem
I just have doubts about the ability to moderate social media, I think some of these issues can only be solved in the real world, I just think it's just harder to be a jerk, when you are face to face with people. And I think that's what ratios. And so if we really want to improve our society, we need to develop way ways for creating new ways to create community, right? We used to have these unions used to do it, Kiwanis, Rotary Shriners, whatever used to do it, churches used to do it, all of those things are either a subsumed within partisan tribalism or be are gone. And so there just aren't those opportunities for us to connect as human beings and realize, you know, this person, I can disagree with them, but they're not vile, they're trying as hard as I am. And so at all my All I'm saying is, I don't see how you do that within social media.

Candis Watts Smith
Yeah, I mean, so there is the kind of, like, you can get ratioed, right, you can say a thing. And there's just all these responses where people just telling you, you're wrong, and they're not retweeting it, or something like that. But what I find fascinating, I guess, right, so there's always like a, like a one step forward, one step back maybe. And that, like, then people call that cancel culture? And it's like, Well, I'm just trying to say a thing. And now you're saying that I'm wrong? And I don't know, I'm not sure that we maybe this comes back to something that we were talking about earlier, is that I'm not sure that we, I don't know if we have a standard shared values. And maybe that's part of our problem, too.

Chris Beem 
I don't disagree with that. Wait until next year, and you'll find out everything I have to say about shared values. But I, I think it is a very conservative point to say that, without those kind of shared commitments, it is very hard to sustain a well ordered society. And, you know, it's clear that right now, I mean, you know, really, since the 60s, a lot of what we take to be social agreements, are, you know, more controversial or thinking things through the universe of who it who has a seat at the table has expanded in ways that are absolutely correct and legitimate, but it makes it almost, you know, makes the sense of what are our shared values, harder to achieve. But what we can say is that social media is not helping this.

Candis Watts Smith 
Yeah, I mean, I think it's just I, for me, I think it's important to we have, we have a problem in this country. We have many problems, we have problems. You know, I think that social media is one factor that you know, when we borrow I'm Danielle Allen, right? Like the we have a problem that we would like to produce an inclusive multiracial democracy. So I just I hope that we keep in mind that social media is one of the issues at hand. There's public education, there's the rhetoric of elites, there's actually turning Americans policy preferences into policy outcomes and not new fights. There's, you know, we have all of these, these these things, and social social media is just it's just one of them.

Chris Beem 
No, I think that's right. And thanks to Chris for giving us a you know, as Jenna said, this different kind of insight into what's going on and why and then offering some, some ideas about what we do about it. So thanks to Chris bale for joining us. And for a terrific book. I'm Chris Beem.

Candis Watts Smith 
And I'm Candis Watts Smith for Democracy Works. Thanks for listening.