Editor’s Note: Douglas Rushkoff is a media theorist. His new new book, “Team Human,” was published Tuesday by W. W. Norton. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his. View more opinion articles on CNN.
A viral video has once again confirmed everyone’s preconceptions about human nature, the state of our politics and even “kids nowadays.”
Yes, the confrontation between a teenage boy in a MAGA hat and an older Native American at the Lincoln Memorial last Friday was a sick spectacle. If you recoiled when you first saw it online, you were right to be disgusted. But you shouldn’t conclude – no matter what version of the video you saw – that it captures some meaningful reflection of human nature or even America’s current cultural divide.
It doesn’t. It simply demonstrates how social media amplify and inflame our tensions. These online platforms and the algorithms driving them are the real enemies of humankind. Not a few smug white kids or chanting American Indian elders.
In this episode in particular, we now know, the video only went viral after it was posted on a network of anonymous and spoofed Twitter accounts used specifically to promote divisive, sensationalist stories on all sides of the political spectrum. Yes, it seems there are people, organizations, and even whole countries who use social media to provoke and confirm our worst fears of one another.
They have a lot to work with here. In this incident, for example, there are progressives who see the white-male racism of President Trump’s Make American Great Again crowd perpetuating itself in a new generation of young fascist bullies. Instead of seeing one obnoxious child and his rowdy pubescent buddies, they see evidence of a neo-Nazi sensibility taking hold among American youth.
There are MAGA enthusiasts, on the other hand, who don’t see these boys as inhumane or racist. These enthusiasts see the history of the world as a competition for dominance, with white people as the rightful, if unrecognized, winners. They see young men righteously, if a little indignantly, defending their race and civilization against leftist social warriors and the forces of political correctness.
Bad actors hoping to stoke our fear or rage by using these platforms, which are specifically designed to bypass our higher faculties – our common sense or empathy – and reach right down into our brainstem so that we click on ads and stay glued to the screen. They use Las Vegas slot machine algorithms in our feeds. That’s what we’re up against, here.
The “reptile brain” these platforms trigger doesn’t engage in prosocial behaviors. Instead, in an environment of weaponized memes and isolated by social media, human beings become more entrenched in their positions and driven by a fear for their personal survival.
Worst of all, since these platforms appear so interactive and democratic, we experience this degradation of our social processes as a form of personal empowerment. To be truly social starts to feel like a restraint – like the yoke of political correctness, or a compromising tolerance of those whose very existence weakens our stock. Or, for progressives, like an abandonment of the values we have committed ourselves to defend.
Our digital platforms still appeal to our worst and basest instincts. Already, everything is binary: one/zero, yes/no, good/bad, us/them. It’s all about boundaries: seeing ideas, countries, races, and even people as “other.”
Instead of becoming aware of the way digital media and dangerously manipulative social media platforms can lead us toward hateful, entrenched positions and behaviors, we instead fall victim to those who intentionally leverage these platforms to whip us up into a frenzy. Is the video of those boys indicative of some social illness? Yes. Is it emblematic of our national psyche or underlying nature? Only if we choose it to be.
The internet doesn’t have to be used against a person’s critical faculties any more than language has to be used to lie. But each extension of our social reality into a new medium requires we make a conscious effort to bring our humanity along with us.