Social Media, Tribalism, and the Prevalence of Fake News

In the latest piece for the IHS-Big Think video series, Jonathan Rauch, a senior fellow at Brookings, considers how social media increases the severity of tribalism and fake news.

“It turns out that human beings are not wired to be logical creatures that pursue objective truth.” Rauch notes. “We’re wired to be tribal creatures that try and ingratiate ourselves with our group and improve our status within that group. The way we do that is displaying outrage, anger, and hostility to the other group.”

Humans have always been like that, and we’ve always had these disruptions where new technologies come along and give people the ability to act like tribalists. This happened, for example, when the printing press was created in the 15th century. People started using it to spread fake news about witches. It took a long time to figure out how to build institutions that spread truth rather than falsehood, such as publishing houses and editorial standards.


Rauch argues that with the creation of social media, we seem to be in a transition period—once again trying to correct the spread of misinformation.


Rauch explains: “When you give [people] big open platforms, people tend not to use them to communicate, they tend to use them to display—they want to show their group affinity. We’re like the tribespeople, painting our faces and standing on the hillside shaking our spears at the tribespeople on the next hill. We express hostility and solidarity, and insult people in order to show people who we’re with.”


This kind of communication—display, outrage, or highly emotional stuff, is contagious. Some psychologists think it’s even addictive.


Rauch continues: “We all thought the internet would be a place that would be good for truth, or at least neutral to truth. It turns out it’s not. It’s a place that tends to be hostile to truth. The fake news spreads faster.”

Rauch notes that Google and Facebook are taking steps to address this problem. They are trying to guide users in the direction of material that is true, and away from material that is false, without censorship.

“Facebook won’t take down fake news, but they will demote it on the Facebook news feed, so you don’t see it quite as prominently,” says Rauch. “It turns out that’s very helpful in nudging people in the direction of fact checks. If they click on something and try and re-post it and it’s fake, they will get a notice. It says this has been checked, here’s the context, here’s what the checkers say, are you sure you want to re-post this? Which asks us to think a minute. Wait a minute, if I’m not sure this is true, do I really want to spread it?”

Rauch likes this approach because it gives people responsibility over what they’re doing. By not being anonymous, you have a reputation to maintain, which helps you act in a responsible way.

Rauch concludes: “The great challenge now is to rebuild these norms and institutions that will encourage us to use social media in pro-social ways.”

This video is one in an extended series about civil discourse. To view additional videos from the series, visit the Institute for Humane Studies blog.

Prior videos in this series:

Self Command: Learn This Powerful Thinking Tool
with Emily Chamlee-Wright, IHS president

The Psychology of Moral Grandstanding
with Brandon Warmke, Bowling Green State University assistant professor of philosophy

Why Free Speech Has No Political Party
with Jon Zimmerman, University of Pennsylvania professor of history of education

John Stuart Mill’s Big Idea: Harsh Critics Make Good Thinkers
with Keith Whittington, Princeton University professor of politics

Why Pitting Prejudices Against Each Other Keeps Society Free
with Jonathan Rauch, Brookings senior fellow

Free Speech on College Campuses: A Bottom-up Approach
with Emily Chamlee-Wright, IHS president

See more posts: Big ThinkCivil DiscourseIdeasIHS NewsVideo 

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