Things Fall Apart: How Social Media Leads to a Less Stable World

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While social media provides myriad benefits, the advances in connectivity and wealth may come at the expense of the state and the world’s stability, writes Curtis Hougland, CEO of Attentionusa.com, a global social marketing agency.

James Foley. David Haines. Steven Sotloff. The list of people beheaded by followers of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) keeps growing. The filming of these acts on video and distribution via social media platforms such as Twitter represent a geopolitical trend in which social media has become the new frontline for proxy wars across the globe. While social media does indeed advance connectivity and wealth among people, its proliferation at the same time results in a markedly less stable world.

That social media benefits mankind is irrefutable. I have been an evangelist for the power of new media for 20 years. However, technology in the form of globalized communication, transportation and supply chains conspires to make today’s world more complex. Events in any corner of the world now impact the rest of the globe quickly and sharply. Nations are being pulled apart along sectarian seams in Iraq, tribal divisions in Afghanistan, national interests in Ukraine and territorial fences in Gaza. These conflicts portend a quickening of global unrest, confirmed by Foreign Policy magazine’s map of civil protest. The ISIS videos are simply the exposed wire. I believe that over the next century, even great nations will Balkanize — break into smaller nations. One of the principal drivers of this Balkanization is social media Twitter .

Social media is a behavior, an expression of the innate human need to socialize and share experiences. Social media is not simply a set of technology channels and networks. Both the public and private sectors have underestimated the human imperative to behave socially. The evidence is now clear with more than 52% of the population living in cities and approximately 2 billion people active in social media globally. Some 96% of content emanates from individuals, not brands, media or governments — a volume that far exceeds participation in democratic elections.

Social media is not egalitarian, though. Despite the exponential growth of user-generated content, people prefer to congregate online around like-minded individuals. Rather than seek out new beliefs, people choose to reinforce their existing political opinions through their actions online. This is illustrated in Pew Internet’s 2014 study, “Mapping Twitter Topic Networks from Polarized Crowds to Community Clusters.” Individuals self-organize by affinity, and within affinity, by sensibility and personality. The ecosystem of social media is predicated on delivering more of what the user already likes. This, precisely, is the function of a Follow or Like. In this way, media coagulates rather than fragments online.

Shock and Recruit

Worryingly, the more extreme the personality and sensibility of the author in relation to the affinity, the more popular he or she is on social media. Affinities such as friendship, religion, political belief and geography devolve into narrower and narrower versions of themselves. The true purpose of the ISIS videos is not to shock Westerners outraged by the savagery; their purpose is to recruit like-minded zealots to the cause and establish their brand promise under a black flag.

The ecosystem of social media is predicated on delivering more of what the user already likes. This, precisely, is the function of a Follow or Like. In this way, social media coagulates rather than fragments online.

Extra-national communities destabilize the state by providing avenues for establishing loyalty that are stronger than those provided by the state. This extra-nation of social media smacks of the fall of Roman Empire, in which affinity toward Christianity superseded loyalty to the Empire. In the Balkans, ethnicity and religion became more important than nationhood. Today’s nations are hamstrung by recently drawn political boundaries and gerrymandering driven by colonization and self-interests.

Social media is Federalism 2.0. Formal nationhood as the basis for a social contract with its citizens dates only to the 17th century. It is a relatively new phenomenon. As Pankaj Mishra points out in Bloomberg View, “Few people in 1900 expected centuries-old empires — Qing, Hapsburg, Ottoman — to collapse by 1918.” The belief in the centralized nation as the default political organization is grossly misplaced. And we are seeing the de-evolution of nationhood before our eyes in our daily newsfeeds.

If it were a nation, Facebook would be the world’s second largest with 1.31 billion citizens — soon to eclipse China. Of course, Facebook is not a single country; it consists of millions of communities. These extra-national communities are often more important to individuals than loyalty to their nation. Yet, rather than instigate today’s unrest, social media is reflective of pre-existing attitudes of unrest across societies. It’s a petri dish, but the bacteria are already present. Social media provides both an organizing tool through its ability to structure and facilitate communication and an organizing principle in the way people gravitate toward the extreme. In this way, social media accelerates political unrest like a giant centrifuge, spinning faster and faster and spitting out those who disagree.

The risk that this trend poses to business is significant with listed Western firms gaining 20% to 30% of their sales in emerging markets, about twice the level in the mid-1990s. The risk to society is profound, because now revolutions such as the Arab Spring can occur in months rather than years.

Product Fragmentation

In short, the world is behaving more and more like social media. In light of the ability to organize online in this extra-national way, countries such as Belgium (Wallonia v. Flanders), Italy (North v. South), Spain (Catalonia v. Madrid) and Canada (Montreal v. Ottawa) become not only potential candidates for break-ups, but perhaps move inevitably in that direction, notwithstanding the results of last month’s referendum in Scotland. These countries face Balkanization in part because of closer communications in social media factional communities. Unlike Iraq and Afghanistan, these are civil disputes occurring in mature markets in Europe. As any marketer understands, mature markets inevitably lead to more brand extensions, more fragmentation of the primary product line. As there are now more than 30 brands of Mountain Dew, there will be more nations in Europe.

The world is behaving more and more like social media.

The outcomes in Libya, Iraq, Afghanistan and Ukraine are unlikely to lead to the emergence of stronger nations in the near term. Once the process of Balkanization begins, it will be difficult to stop. However, these new nations will indeed be more homogenous. Nations will follow the path of social media in splintering by sectarian, religious and ethnic interests. Given this trend, government censorship of social media is a logical decision if a nation’s singular objective is the preservation of the state. Iran’s recent decision to loosen laws on the use of social media may speak to a nobler agenda, perhaps; however, it will not make the country strictly safer or more stable. This is true for Iran, and it is true for China.

Gerrymandering maps of districts in the U.S. are drawn to politically organize like-minded individuals into voting blocs. It is perhaps the most visual representation of the artificial movement toward Balkanization. Counties in California, Colorado and Oregon are organizing legitimate secession movements through social media, not to mention Texas’ long-term ambitions of independence cited recently by its governor Rick Perry.

Social media underpins why the left becomes more left, and the right gets more right in politics.Participants on both sides of the debate do not engage each other. They even use different lexicons, hash tags and URLs. While these movements are nascent, they are indicative of the steady walk toward Balkanization. Religious groups in Kansas are increasingly less tolerant, because they act with shared purpose around social issues that supersede their loyalty to the national law. One website, Stormfront.org, can inspire a hundred killings. One man, Clive Bundy, can defy the power of local government, because empathetic zealots rally around his cause through social media. Two ISIS videos galvanize two sides of a conflict. Social media possesses an entropic quality.

Winning Hearts and Minds

Despite being one of the most technologically sophisticated countries in the world, Israel is fighting a losing battle on the social media front. Both Israel and Palestine use social media effectively to demonize the other side. However, Palestinians are winning because their content relates to people based on more defined affinities and emotions beyond abstractions of right or wrong. In Hamas’ communications in social media, they organize and share visual content to appeal to distinct niches such as moms, educators and neighbors.

The Palestinians place content in the context of what an audience already cares about and relates to. Comparatively, there were very few pictures of rockets falling in Israel in social media. Winning the actual battle may not mean winning the war if there is a larger proxy war occurring in social media of people outside participating countries. The insidious rise of anti-Semitism in Europe reinforces this view.

These insights are gained because social media is the truest representation of societal intent as well as a practical source of diligence and investigation. We are individually and collectively the sum of our digital archives. After all, Google often knows far more about what you are doing than your mother. For this reason, the National Security Agency, the Federal Bureau of Investigation and Interpol aggressively use social media to mine leads about terrorism. As in the downing of Malaysian Airlines flight 17, the trail of social media led to proof of Russian involvement. But as in terrorism, social media is a hydra, in which two heads grow every time one is cut off. It is sobering to think of the implications if the American SEAL team had invaded bin Laden’s compound to discover a highly sophisticated communications apparatus. ISIS demonstrates a step up in sophistication, but the terrorists have not scratched the surface of what is possible through social media.

These insights are gained because social media is the truest representation of societal intent as well as a practical source of diligence and investigation.

In the disease lies the cure. The solution to rising instability is to embrace the principles of Balkanization in a manner that preserves and even strengthens nationhood. The state must nourish the organization of independent supra-national communities around universal issues such as health, science, money and safety. Researchgate is an example of a niche network for scientists to collaborate across geographical and institutional lines. Organizations like Risk Assistance Network & Exchange bring together the world’s top safety and security experts to address today’s increasingly interconnected risks. China’s DXY claims to be the world’s largest online professional community of physicians, medical institutions, health care providers and life science researchers. Even if Bitcoin fails, the creation of a supra-national monetary system is inevitable given the pull of Balkanization. Nations should identify experts to create monetary systems acceptable to both the public and private sectors internationally. In short, nations must Balkanize their own institutions.

Another solution is transparency. A single advertising technology company such as Blue Kai boasts more than one billion profiles on Internet users across the globe. Each profile contains more than 50 attributes. However, the information focuses on the world’s more affluent consumers rather than the most potentially violent ones. The technology exists today to identify individuals who express varying stages of intent toward extreme behavior. This listening technology is both semantic, which searches conversations for action verbs such “hurt” and “kill” as well as character-based, which analyzes more complex implicit and explicit gestures online to determine intent.

So, we have the means to create a global database of extreme behavior. This database complements a supra-national 21st century version of a global hotline. A universal button — application/plug-in/extension/iconistan — easily enables users to report incidents to the database anonymously without the fear of retribution. Yes, there are massive privacy and technology issues, but all of this data capture is already happening, just against a different audience against a different set of (consumerist) attributes.

Biologically, all human beings are 99.9% the same. As Bill Clinton related in a 2007 speech, “Our common humanity is more important than our differences. Questions of community and identity, personal identity, will determine our collective capacity to deal with all the problems. The most important thing is the understanding of the elemental value that makes all communities possible in an interdependent world.” Every great societal advance — from the combat of fascism in World War II to the eradication of diseases such as polio and smallpox — required shared sacrifice and collaboration around common causes. Unless we find a simplified means to communicate and stay together, the solutions to our most complex problems will be lost in the way that lost natural ecosystems rob humanity of potential cures. And Balkanized societies will operate in increasingly siloed echo chambers.

At a lecture last week, I asked a geographically diverse group of students from around the world — Houston, Tuscaloosa, Ala., New York City, Paris, Cairo and Montreal — if they could only be citizens of their city/neighborhood/tribe OR their country, which would they choose? Yes, there were caveats, but the question was honestly debated. They all chose their own Balkans.
Curtis Hougland is the CEO of Attentionusa.com, a global social marketing agency. He founded one of the first new media agencies in 1992, and one of the first social media agencies in 2005.

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