Hot Take: Social Media is Still Dangerous

Nick Rabb
6 min readAug 24, 2020
A visualization of political social networks from research by Bakshy, Messing, and Adamic. | Source

In Chris Wylie’s tell-all book, Mindf*ck, detailing his work at Cambridge Analytica, he gives a frank account of how the company used psychographic manipulation to sway portions of the U.S. voting public. Particularly, when seeding discord in vulnerable populations, they preyed on the psychology of identity to build their angry army. Wylie explains that Steve Bannon — then Vice President of Cambridge Analytica — wanted to target racial bias in vulnerable voters, and used the tools to push narratives of “racial realism,” opposed to political correctness, in a way that inoculated the victims against rational critique.

This framing effect of political correctness as an identity threat catalyzed a “boomerang” effect in people where counternarratives would actually strengthen, not weaken, the prior bias or belief… In this way, if you could frame racialized views through the lens of identity prior to exposure to a counternarrative, that counternarrative would be interpreted as an attack on identity instead. (pp. 128)

Wylie continues to explain that, “the area of the brain that is most highly activated when we process strongly held beliefs is the same area that is involved when we think about who we are and our identity.” This seems to be based off of a study at USC which shows that political beliefs strongly activate the amygdala and the default mode network; the former is responsible for processing fear or threat, and the latter — which is less clearly understood — is sometimes shown to activate when we think of who we are. Other researchers have additionally concluded that cognitive flexibility, which is associated with liberalism, is made easier when the brain has more gray matter; something that increases the more we process stereotype-breaking information.

If this hypothesis is correct, then we have a lot to worry about when it comes to people’s identities and their political flexibility. The piece about counternarratives actually entrenching bias in individuals who associate narratives with their identity is especially worrying. It seems, then, that a society cognizant of its cognitive predilections would take steps to mitigate the degree to which identity forms around strong political views.

Social Media is a Strong Opinion, Identity Machine

Nick Rabb

PhD candidate in Computer Science and Cognitive Science at Tufts University, organizer w/ Dissenters, MA Peace Action, formerly Sunrise Mvmt. Philosophy nerd.