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Internet Trolls and the Quest for the Inner Ring
Part Three of a Christian commentary on Chris Bail's "Breaking the Social Media Prism"
(The following is my unedited manuscript for Part 3 of my commentary on Chris Bail’s “Breaking the Social Media Prism”, which released on January 3rd, 2022. Breaking the Digital Spell is available wherever you get your podcasts, on YouTube (embedded below), or you can listen online here.)
1.1: So far, in our series covering Chris Bail’s “Breaking the Social Media Prism”, we have focused on establishing some foundational truths. In the first episode, “Stepping on the Glass of Broken Echo-Chambers”, we covered chapters 1-3 of the book and Bail’s research showing that social media echo chambers are not the problem when it comes to political polarization and tribalism. In fact, we actually make the problem worse when we focus our energy on breaking people out of their echo chambers, and it usually results in a person doubling-down on both their pre-existing beliefs and the intensity of those beliefs. Based on Bail’s research, it is not information that drives our beliefs, but our identities, and when we step outside our echo chambers to get “the other side”, we perceive contrasting perspectives and ideas not as an attack on our beliefs, but an attack on who we are as individuals. In the second episode, “Distorted Beyond the Funhouse Mirror”, we covered Chapter 4 of the book and introduced Bail’s concept of the “social media prism”. When it comes to our identities (how we perceive ourselves and others), the “social media prism” does two things to us: it distorts our identities, and it bends our identities. The first effect is simple enough: social media gives us a very incomplete and skewered picture of reality, including our understanding of ourselves relative to the rest of society and culture. But it’s the second effect where social media ceases being just a funhouse mirror and actually does something to us: Bail contends that social media not only distorts our identities, but bends our behavior to match the distorted identities we see online. If part of our identity is to find belonging and acceptance to a particular group, tribe, or ideology, we will change our behavior to match the behavior we see from those we respect online, even if that behavior doesn’t reflect the attitude or desires of a group as a whole. We often want to use social media as a mirror that we can use to see ourselves relative to the rest of society, but not only does that mirror give us a heavily distorted image of ourselves and society, it changes our behavior in ways that stay with us even after we’ve stopped looking in the mirror.
1.2: In this episode, and in the episode to follow, we are going to start getting more practical and concrete on both how these problems are affecting us, and whether or not we can do anything about them. I recognize that the last two episodes have been heavy on “problem” with little on “solution”, and unfortunately for this episode, that trend is going to continue. In the next episode, we will examine Bail’s solutions to the problem and give some critique and evaluations, and I will provide some potential solutions of my own. This episode is going to be very straightforward: we are going to tackle the two biggest effects the social media prism has on our society, as detailed in chapters 5 and 6 of the book. Those two biggest effects are how the social media prism drives extremism (chapter 5) and how the social media prism mutes moderates (chapter 6).
2.1: For chapter 5, Bail’s goal is very straightforward: “I explain how the social media prism distorts how extremists see themselves and others, which creates a self-fulfilling prophecy that pushes people further apart.” Bail notes that while there is no shortage of opinions about extremists on social media, there has been very little academic study on them for an obvious reason: political extremists, or trolls, usually don’t want to be studied and, like they behave on social media, will troll the researchers by leaving out or hiding key details about their lives. Bail illustrates this at the start of the chapter with the story of a man named Jamie, a medical assistant in a hospital in Alabama. Jamie, in his interviews with Bail, claims that he only uses Twitter as an information source for sports and music, and that he didn’t care about other people knowing his opinion. And yet, a cursory survey of Jamie’s social media activity revealed that he was a very extreme liberal troll, often tweeting fly-by insults at conservatives in his ordinary use of the app. Jamie’s self-description of himself omitted the fact that Jamie is a troll, and knows it - when he took the political beliefs survey at the beginning of the survey, he even trolled the survey and said he was a very strong Republican!
2.2: Jamie would later admit a very critical truth: as a liberal with mostly conversation friends living in a very conservative part of the country, Jamie was very lonely. Loneliness is a theme that appears in the lives of many of the extremists that Bail interviewed, even for ones on the opposite end of the political spectrum. Bail’s next illustration is of a conservative troll named Ed, who, unlike Jamie, admits he is a troll and is proud of it. He enjoyed Trump’s social media antics and behavior, and was willing to be bluntly and directly honest with Bail and his research team about his behavior online and the fact that he enjoys being a Twitter troll. Now, take whatever opinion you may have about Ed, and freeze that in time for a second while I fill you in on Ed’s backstory. As Bail says, Ed is a widower in his 60s. He spent most of the 80s working in the financial sector and able to provide a comfortable life for him and his wife, but as changes in the financial sector pushed him out of a job, Ed had to tap early into his retirement in order to make ends meet. Not only that, his wife was dying, and her medical care in her final stages depleted even more of his life savings. Now, Ed lives in a motel in Nebraska, living on food stamps, because he is overqualified for the handful of jobs in the small town he lives in. He doesn’t have any family or friends nearby, and he can’t afford to move back to Fort Collins, CO, the town he spent most of his life in. Ed has so little that he can’t even afford a red Make America Great Again hat. What Ed does have - and what he takes great pride in - is his online status and significance as a troll, because offline, he has nothing.
2.3: Bail argues that when you lack offline status and significance, the ability to influence others is immensely valuable to someone who does not have much control over their real-world circumstances. If you’re someone like Ed, whose life savings from a promising career have all been washed down the drain just trying to survive and taking care of your now-deceased wife, and now live in a motel surviving solely off food stamps, being able to influence people online and make a difference online fills the vacuum of powerlessness in your own offline circumstances. As Bail says, “Besides earning status from people on their own side, many of the extremists we interviewed simply delighted in getting other people worked up. Our ability to influence others, however artificially or temporarily, is valuable to people who feel that they have very little control over their own lives. A team of political scientists in the United States and Denmark conducted a series of studies in both countries to determine who spreads political rumors or fake news online. What they found was somewhat surprising: the people who spread such falsehoods were not simply motivated to see their own side win; rather, the researchers found they have a need for chaos—a desire to see the entire system suffer. This need, the scholars speculated, emerges from the experience of marginalization itself - something I saw very clearly in the case of Ed, Jamie, and most of the other political extremists we interviewed.” And for Ed specifically, he admits that his extreme social media behavior is not only just a coping mechanism, but fills that vacuum of significance that he is missing in his life: “Ed told us he engages in extreme behavior on social media because it is cathartic and helps him cope with social isolation. But it was also clear from speaking with him that such behavior gives him a powerful sense of status. During our interview he repeatedly mentioned that he had “a couple thousand” followers, and he was particularly proud to count several prominent conservative leaders among them. When I analyzed Ed’s social media account several months later, however, I discovered that he only had about two hundred followers. What is more, the high-profile conservatives he thought were following him were actually people with copycat accounts. For Ed and many of the other political extremists we interviewed, social media enables a kind of microcelebrity—even if his influence was exaggerated, or even if many of his followers did not seem like real people who were genuinely interested in his views.” While I am not trying to suggest that the behavior of trolls is ever justified or acceptable, I hope that perhaps somewhere in our hearts, exhausted and worn thin as we are from the state of our world, a small kindling of compassion and pity will light, and that we might consider that the trolls that we see online - at least, the ones who are not public speakers, authors, grifters, or media personalities - are trolls because they’re looking for something to fill a deep hole a grief in their hearts.
2.4: But not only are most trolls likely looking for belonging, acceptance, and status in their lives in their behavior, they’re very likely to find it in the worst possible place - among other trolls who are looking for the same thing. One of the more interesting observations from Bail’s study is how political extremists, whether online or offline, come to form deep communities with other extremists, and in an online context, how those clusters of extremists work together in trolling people. They will share lists of people to follow, and they will work together in targeting individuals to troll - Bail saw some of the extremists he was working with individually make connections with one another online and team up to troll the bots Bail was using! But perhaps the most fascinating aspect of this: nearly every political extremist Bail interviewed admitted, to some degree, that they know their trolling doesn’t change anyone’s mind on an issue. One conservative troll he interviewed even went so far as to say, “I have to respond to something like that [referring to an extreme liberal reaction to a political situation] because it’s ridiculous. Not that it’s going to matter, because the people who believe its our fault are going to believe its our fault no matter what the evidence is.” Remember: one of Bail’s biggest claims is that the biggest driving force behind extremism and polarization is not a question of information, but identity, and one thing that every identity shares in common is a desire to be in relationship with others who share our identity. As Bail says, “Though it may seem that social media extremists are most concerned with taking down the other side through superior argumentation—ideally laced with wry humor or sarcasm—my research suggests that these attacks also serve a ritual function that pushes extremists closer together.”
2.5: If you think about it for a bit, this makes a lot of sense. If you have little going for you offline - if your life lacks meaning, status, and significance, it’s no surprise that you would befriend those who also seeking the same thing as you because they’re in a similar state to you. If online status and significance becomes the only meaningful form of status and significance you have in your life, receiving status and significance from others you can relate to and identify with becomes more than just an extra form of social currency; it becomes the only lens through which you can understand yourself. Extremists who are driven towards extremism due to marginalization and suffering in their offline lives, and whose extremist connections and relationships are the most valuable relationships they have, are deeply concerned about suffering any loss to their online status. Like the story with Ed just a bit ago, he believed that he had several thousand followers which included some big-name conservative leaders, but in actuality he had around a couple hundred followers, including copycat accounts of those big-named conservative leaders. In actuality, Ed had nothing offline, and was a nobody online - but he didn’t see it that way. So imagine what would happen if a troll should lose a follower or group of followers - or doesn’t receive the desired attention and recognition from those who aren’t as extreme as them? If trolls are violent and hostile towards those who are opposite of them politically, they are often much worse towards those who unfollow them or who won’t become as extreme as they are. This makes their relationships with others trolls all the more priceless - as Bail says, “The symbolic meaning of the bonds that extremists make with each other became even more apparent to me when I learned how closely extremists monitor their followers. Though social media sites do not alert users when people stop following them, several of the extremists we interviewed used third-party apps to identify such individuals. People who unfollowed the extremists we studied—particularly several of the conservative extremists—were often subject to even more aggressive attacks . . . For me, this type of retribution further underscores how deeply trolls value the status and influence they achieve online, and how much it upsets them when people on their own side sever ties with them.”
2.6: If this is starting to sound like a cult or cultish behavior, that’s because it bears several significant features of being a cult. We normally don’t think of online trolls as belonging to any particular group, much less ones with the features of cults, but according to Bail, that is exactly what is going on here (quick note - in this quote he refers to people and stories I’ve not mentioned here): “The more I delved into communities of political extremists on social media, the more they seemed to have cult-like dynamics. As the famed sociologist Max Weber noted more than a hundred years ago, most extreme religious groups exist in constant tension with established mainstream churches. Proving one’s membership in a cult often becomes a sort of ritual in which members reward each other for take increasingly extreme positions to prove their loyalty to the cause. For Sandy, the former Obama voter who became an ardent Trump supporter, this required frequent rehearsal of her conservative bona fides. For Ellen, this often takes the form of attacking other Democrats for policies that—in her view—are scarcely different from those of her true enemy: Republicans. For still others, it means attacking extremists who challenge their loyalty to their side more forcefully than anyone else. In each of these cases, my research indicates that political extremists are pushed and pulled toward increasingly radical positions by the likes, new follows, and other types of engagement they receive for doing so—or because they fear retribution for showing any sympathy toward the mainstream. These types of behavior mirror the famous finding of the social psychologist Leon Festinger about a doomsday cult from the 1950s: the further people become committed to radical views, the more difficult these commitments become to undo, and the more people come to rely on the status and support system that cults create.” I am going to repeat that last clause because I do not want you to miss this: the further people become committed to radical views, the more difficult these commitments become to undo, and the more people come to rely on the status and support system that cults create. I sincerely hope this flips a switch or turns on a lightbulb in the way you view political extremists or trolls, because - to connect several dots - if the primary driving force of our lives is not the information we believe, but the identity we desire to have and our desire to belong to others who are like us, it means that there is a social and relational dimension to extremism that cannot be undone unless there is a viable social and support system to transition extremists into.
2.7: For cults who practice shunning former members who leave the cult, such as Mormonism and Jehovah’s Witnesses, often times the biggest factor for whether or not someone truly walks away is whether or not they have a place waiting for them to walk towards. If changing these beliefs does not simply cost me intellectually, but also physically and socially, then the “cost of exit” isn’t just a matter of paying an intellectual price, but a price that comprises my entire being. This does not mean that people are not willing to pay that price - when it comes to Christian cults specifically, there are countless testimonies of incredibly courageous and brave men and women who are willing to leave behind everything to follow Christ no matter the cost - but it does make that price significantly higher than what most people are willing to pay. But if that cost can be offset somewhere else - if I have a strong and legitimate community of friends and people who treat me like flesh-and-blood family outside the support system of the cult I want to leave - that lessens the pain of leaving that support system behind and choosing this new social and relational support system to belong to. But I don’t have that alternate system - if I am alone, and if I have no one else to meaningfully turn to for the belonging and acceptance I am designed to seek - then why I should I leave the system that gives me those things? As Bail says, “One of the key functions of the social media prism . . . is that it reflects the social landscape back to us. But in so doing, the prism inevitably distorts what we see, and for many people it creates a delusional form of self-worth. The type of uncivil behavior I described in this chapter results from this process, taken to its extreme. Many people with strong partisan views do not participate in such destructive behavior. behavior. But the people who do often act this way because they feel marginalized, lonely, or disempowered in their off-line lives. Social media offer such social outcasts another path. Even if the fame extremists generate has little significance beyond small groups of other outcasts, the research my colleagues and I conducted suggests that social media give extremists a sense of purpose, community, and—most importantly—self-worth.”
2.8: Now, I want to make clear: none of this, in any way shape or form, excuses or justifies the behavior of online trolls. I also want to stress that this is not a one-sized-fits-all reality for every single troll that you see or encounter online - there are plenty of trolls who are not lonely or suffering offline, and there are some trolls whose trolling is seen as a boon or an asset to their professional life and image. I am not trying to paint a view of trolls as being these poor, misguided souls who are just misunderstood. What I am trying to say is that, for a good number of trolls, their on-line behavior is an extension of their real-world brokenness, and that this behavior is not something that can be argued or fact-checked out of them if it does truly arise from pain and suffering that is often invisible to us. When it comes to the trolls we see online, there is often very little to nothing we can do to meaningfully address or fix that real-world pain and suffering. What we can do is not feed the online status and significance that trolls crave from getting people rilled up - as counterintuitive as it seems, blocking and muting trolls truly is the most helpful thing that we can do if its a person that we do not know and cannot help in real life. If trolls are to have any hope of moving on from this identity towards a healthier one, their identity as a troll will need to be weakened, and the only way to weaken the strength of that identity is to do your part to not contribute oxygen to the burning flame.
3.1: Now, as terrible and depressing as this whole topic is, it’s actually about to get more worse. The amplification and empowerment of extremists is one of two major effects the social media prism has on our society. Bail argues - and I agree with him - that the second of these two effects is actually the worst of the two, and that’s the muting of moderates. If our culture uses social media as a tool to reflect the political and cultural landscape back to us, and if that reflection gives us a heavily distorted image in return, that distortion is going to manifest in two ways. It’s going to make one particular aspect of society seem outsized and aggrandized into something much bigger and much more menacing than it actually is. But in order to do that, it needs to minimize and obscure something else in order to make that smaller feature now seem significantly larger. In our case, social media reflects to us a landscape where the vast majority of people have lost their minds and common ground is increasingly impossible with one another. But - as a little bit of good news - that distorted image we see does not reflect the way American society actually is. Political extremists represent a very small percentage of the American population; political moderates are not any less a political bloc than they’ve been in any point in recent history. And yet, the landscape reflected to us through social media would have us believe the opposite is true - and this belief is far from benign. Like many other lies we believe about ourselves and others, these misconceptions and distortions change the way we think, feel, and behave, and those lies scale very well to society as a whole.
3.2: I had mentioned at the beginning of the episode that there would likely be some sections where you might want to skip ahead for yourself and for anyone listening, and for the next [COUNT TO FIVE AND LEAVE A BLANK SPACE], we will be covering some stories that include online harassment and death threats, so feel free to skip ahead if you need to. When I was reading Breaking the Social Media Prism for the first time, Chapter 6 was the first chapter in the book where I felt, at a personal level, everything Bail was researching and arguing for. As someone who considers themselve a political moderate, one who leans right-of-center if all my various stances were aggregated to one generalized location, I related to many of the individuals and stories that Bail tells in this chapter about how social media makes me, as a moderate, often feel incredibly isolated and lonely on social media - even though, statistically speaking, I belong to the largest political voting bloc in the country. The first story that Bail tells - the story of a woman named Sara - hit home to me for multiple reasons. Bail spends a good amount of timing detailing how Sara’s political beliefs as a moderate Republican are complex and nuanced on many different topics, and how many of Sara’s life and family experiences form and shape her various stances on certain topics. And yet, Sara has largely given up on trying to have discussions about what she believes politically on social media because anytime she does, she is met with immense hostility. One time, in a semi-viral tweet about how her husband owns a gun for visiting a shooting range but isn’t opposed to firearms regulations, someone replied that they were contacting CPS because Sara admitted to having guns in the house where her two children live. Someone else blatantly wished one of her daughters found that gun and shot Sara with it. While responding to a liberal troll who listed that they were a breast cancer survivor in their bio, Sara compassionately tried to find some common ground with this person who was harassing her; Sara herself was also a breast cancer survivor. The troll simply replied, quote, “I hope you die.” This experience of being unable to dialogue about her political beliefs online doesn’t just apply to strangers on the Internet; Sara is also distressed by her inability to talk with her more liberal friends and family members on social media as well. Sara eventually decided that, for the sake of her ability to love her liberal friends and family and enjoy the time she spends with them in person, that she needed to mute or block those friends and family, even if it meant also missing out on life updates and family photos along with their political rants. If one looked at her social media presence now, it would look as though Sara doesn’t care very much about politics, but nothing could be further from the truth; Sara cares very deeply about her political convictions. She just doesn’t believe - as the vast majority of moderates do - that it is neither profitable nor safe to try to add her moderate voice to a discussion dominated by polarized extremes. And, as Bail argues, the cost of that absence is profound.
3.3: It may genuinely surprise you to learn that, contrary to appearances on social media, that the American public is not any more polarized than it has been in recent decades. The American National Election Study and several other large studies show that the number of people who identify as “extremely liberal” or “extremely conservative” is very small percentage of the population, and that the number of people who identify as a moderate, be it left-of-center, right-of-center, or firmly in the center, remain the dominant majority by far. The same firms who conduct these studies also regularly report that most Republicans and Democrats have views that are often out-of-step with the party line, such as a majority of self-professed Republicans having neutral-to-positive views on increasing immigration and a majority of self-professed Democrats having positive views on the police and rural life. So if the vast majority of the American public are moderates in some way, and if the average Republican or Democrat hold political views that may be out of line with the party stereotype, where are all these people at? Based on social media, this almost seems too good to be true - if these people exist, why don’t we see them more often? This is where the distorting and bending effects of the social media prism come into play. Like we talked about in the last episode, social media not only distorts our identities, but it bends our behaviors to conform to those distorted identities. If I identify as a moderate, and I look to social media to see where all my fellow moderates are at and see nothing but extremists and trolls, I am going to conclude that there are not very many people like me. And, on the handful of instances where I see someone try to express a nuanced view on a topic and then get publicly harassed for it, I am going to take that as an example of what will happen to me if I speak up too, and that just keep my mouth shut. Not only is it an unproductive waste of time, something worse may actually happen to me.
3.4: But as it turns out - I am not alone in feeling that way. In fact, many moderates feel that way! According to a 2017 survey from the Pew Research Center, one in four Americans have experienced being harassed online. But even more shocking than that - the same survey reported that 3 out of 4 Americans have observed someone else being harassed online, and 1/3rd of those observations were physical threats of harm and violence. Bail took this particular study and calculated that if you identify as a moderate, or slightly conservative/liberal, you are 40% more likely to report an experience of online harassment over those who identify as extremely liberal or conservative. Social media amplifies the voice of extremists and trolls, giving them an outsized appearance of influence in American society and politics, and also empowering them to ruthlessly harass and attack the moderate majority and intimidate people into silence. But not only do moderates experience attacks from extremists and trolls, moderates also largely feel as though they are caught in a crossfire between two sides of a political spectrum who believe the other side is more extreme than they actually are. According to the American National Election Study I mentioned earlier, only 3% of the American populace identifies as extremely liberal and extremely conservative - a total of 6% of the population. And yet, according to a different survey, if you asked the average Republican what they thought of the Democratic party, 55% think the average Democrat is “extremely liberal”, and 35% of Democrats think the average Republican is “extremely conservative”. How can this possibly be true - how can 6% of the population self-identify as being extremely liberal or conservative but the average Republican or Democrat believe everyone opposite them is extreme by default? The answer is due to a phenomenon known as “false polarization”. Think back to the ending of Bail’s thesis statement for the book [quote]: “The social media prism fuels status-seeking extremists, mutes moderates who think there is little to be gained by discussing politics on social media, and leaves most of us with profound misgivings about those on the other side, and even the scope of polarization itself.” [Endquote] This latter clause is what Bail refers to as “false polarization” - the belief that other people are more extreme in their beliefs than they actually are, and that the current state of polarization is far more dire than it actually is. And this is something that impacts the entire political spectrum, because everyone on the political spectrum interacts with social media in some way, even if it’s avoiding social media due to beliefs formed by false polarization itself! The average Republican thinks the average Democrat is more extremely liberal than there are actual liberal extremists. The average Democrat thinks the average Republican is more extremely conservative than there are actual conservative extremists. And the moderates in the middle believe that both sides have lost their minds and that there are very few people like them who do not tow the party line completely for either party. And just so we are clear - the engine fueling this false polarization is social media itself, regardless of the platform you use. As Bail says, “There is even more evidence that people who use social media tend to develop more inaccurate perceptions of the beliefs and behaviors of those in the other party. Communications scholar Matthew Barnidge polled a representative sample of Americans about their social media usage and political views in 2015. He found that people who use social media frequently perceive significantly more political disagreement in their daily lives than those who do not. In her study of political polarization on Facebook, the political scientist Jaime Settle observed a similar phenomenon. She showed people sample Facebook posts on a range of topics and discovered that the participants were far more likely to exaggerate the ideological extremity of people from the other political party than their own party. In a separate analysis, Settle examined how social network structure shapes false polarization. Interestingly, she found that the amount of perceived polarization grows as the social distance between people increases. If people have no direct connections on social media—such as being a friend of another person’s friend—they tend to perceive each other as even more polarized than those who have direct connection.”
3.5: False polarization is an incredibly powerful motivator for moderates to avoid discussing politics (and, I should add, theology and a whole host of other topics) on social media. I freely admit that there are people I know and love in my personal life that I have muted and blocked on social media because, like Sara, I want to preserve my ability to spend time with them in real life - and because I believe that they’re likely too far gone down the rabbit hole for it to be worth my time trying to understand them. But there is another powerful motivation that makes it all the easier for me to avoid discussing politics online - I actually stand to lose much by getting wrapped up in political controversy online. Bail describes that moderates, unlike extremists, have real-world status and significance that they care deeply about, and, also unlike extremists, usually have real-world identities that are far more meaningful and valuable than anything an online identity could ever get them. For me, I am a devout Christian who cares very deeply not only about my faith, but about my witness and reputation for my faith. I am married. My wife works for the state of Texas. I work for a church that I have been attending for nearly ten years and with people I love very dearly. I am working through seminary. I have a wonderful family and amazing friends. I live in a city and community that I love and call my home. These are just a small sampling of my real-world life that give me deep meaning, significance, and value, and comprise many of the key details of my identity and how I see myself - and these are all things that I stand to damage if I get into too much trouble online. If I get into the political fray, I may put unnecessary stumbling blocks for the Gospel or grieve and wound my neighbor for no good reason. My wife’s job for the state explicitly requires her - and, by extension, me - to avoid getting into trouble online. It may genuinely impact the reputation of my church or my relationship with people who attend my church and who I am called to serve - in my past life as a pest control technician, it could’ve cost us customers. It may put an unnecessary and completely avoidable wedge between the family and friends who give me so much life and joy. Given everything that is at stake for me - and given that I have watched and known people who have lost these things because of one Facebook post that got out of hand, or one Tweet that wasn’t sufficiently nuanced enough - why in the world would I throw my two cents in on gun control, or immigration, or Covid, or anything else where I may get torn to shreds?
3.6: Trolls and political extremists often have very little real-world status or significance, which makes their online status and significance as a troll and among other trolls all the more valuable to them since it is the only meaningful form of status they have in the vacuum of significance in their real-world lives. The opposite is true for moderates; moderates often have deep and meaningful real-world identities and do not care about having an online identity or persona. This is the perfect cocktail for moderates to withdraw to their real-world lives and for extremists to fill the gulf of social media and give the appearance that society and both political parties are more extreme than they actually are. As Bail summarizes, “the social media prism makes the other side appear monolithic, unflinching, and unreasonable. While extremists captivate our attention, moderates can seem all but invisible. Moderates disengage from politics on social media for several different reasons. Some do so after they are attacked by extremists. Others are so appalled by the breakdown in civility that they see little point to wading into the fray. Still others disengage because they worry that posting about politics might sacrifice the hard-fought status they’ve achieved in their off-line lives. Challenging extremists can come back to haunt moderates, disrupting their livelihoods, friendships, or relationships with family members they will see every year at Thanksgiving.” And Bail (rightly) believes this problem is going to get worse, and not better. Unless we build active and counter-formational structures where we are able to form respectful and civil mutual understanding with people we disagree with, we can and should expect the social media prism to give us an increasingly distorted image of ourselves, and for our behaviors to be bent according to those distorted identities. The extremists will get more extreme. The moderates will become more and more invisible. Barring an unexpected development in the social media or technological landscape, we can and should expect the problem to get worse, and not better.
4.1: And, like we have been talking about this entire time, this is not an issue of information; what is driving this entire situation is our identity and how social media shapes our identities and the identities of others. While getting Big Tech involved in curtailing misinformation and disinformation is a part of the puzzle, it is not the primary problem and should not be seen as the primary solution. We cannot think or fact-check our way out of our hardwired desire to craft meaningful identities for ourselves based on what we love. But as this episode closes out, I want to leave us with an image that can help us understand the core of what it is that drives all of this, and it’s an image that comes from an unlikely source. Many of us know the name “C.S. Lewis” from the Chronicles of Narnia, or to a lesser extent, Mere Christianity or the Screwtape Letters, but Lewis was a very prolific writer and speaker who secondary catalogue of work - his essays, his public speeches, his letters to friends and colleagues - is just as rich as his more popular works. One idea that shows up in a handful of places, including his space trilogy (did you know Lewis wrote a science fiction trilogy?) and some essays and speeches is this idea of “the inner Ring”, and in my opinion it’s one of the most profound insights Lewis ever had. Andrew Cameron and Brian Rosner summarize Lewis’ “Inner Ring” idea as “our passion to belong to some ‘inner circle’ of people who hover temptingly beyond our reach. When gripped by this passion, to be excluded from these circles drives us slightly mad, and to enter them leaves us smugly exultant. This very person and subjective experience can drive dozens of our daily decisions. C.S. Lewis calls this ‘the quest for the Inner Ring.’” In other words: all of us want to belong to the in-group, and we will do whatever it takes to avoid being excluded and kicked to the out-group. This raises the question though: which in-group are we talking about here? That all depends on what we love, and at our deepest core, who we desire to be and what we desire to be known for.
4.2: Not everyone aspires to the same in-group or “inner Ring”. For some of us, it’s belonging to a particular social circle - a band, a club, a team, the group of guys who get invited to board game night or group of women who go on trips together. For some of us, it’s belonging to a group of people who have attained a particular status or accomplishment - being in a relationship or married, having kids, finishing school with a particular degree (or getting a particular degree from a particular school), working for a particular job or in a particular industry, or being considered an authority or expert in a particular field. For some of us, it’s belonging to the elite of a particular organization or movement - being on the board of a company, a senior leader in a church or ministry, or on the personal invite list for a party hosted by a particular pundit or personality. All of us have a group of people in our lives that we tell ourselves that if we successfully became “one of them” - if you could legitimately speak in terms of “we” when referring to one particular group of people - that we would feel as though we’ve made it, or accomplished something truly important, or that our lives would finally have meaning. All of us also know what it’s like to be excluded from that particular group - to be in orbit but slightly out of reach, to briefly be “in” one moment but “out” the next, to yearn and to fantasize about how much your life would be better if these particular people considered you one of them and to grow despondent when reality sets in that they don’t see you that way. I could go on, but I hope that right now, you know exactly what those “inner rings” are for you, and you know that whether you want to admit it or not, much of what you do is driven by a desire to belong to that one inner ring.
4.3: Now, to make some things clear: inner rings or inner circles are not bad simply because they exist. Nor is it bad that we want to belong to a tightly-knit community of like minded people. Every healthy relationship - whether it’s in a marriage, a family, a community of belief, a hobby, whatever it may be - requires some degree of gatekeeping and exclusion in order for that relationship or community to be healthy. Contrary to what I heard growing up in evangelical youth ministry culture, cliques are not bad in of themselves, and what one person considers a handful of trusted individuals and confidants is what another person considers the good-ol-boys club. The problem, as Lewis identifies it, is not that these things exist in and of themselves: the problem is that “the passion for the Inner Ring is most skillful in making a man who is not yet a very bad man do very bad things”.  Our desire to belong to these inner rings, for these particular circles of influence become part of our identity, will drive us to do or believe things that we would otherwise never do, and if we aren’t careful, we will be guided along by this desire to belong from one inner ring to the next for our whole lives without ever realizing it. As Lewis says, “My main purpose … is simply to convince you that this desire is one of the great permanent mainsprings of human action. It is one of the factors which go to make up the world as we know it - this whole pell-mell of struggle, competition, confusion, great, disappointment, and advertisement, and if it is one of the permanent mainsprings then you may be quite sure of this. Unless you take measures to prevent it, this desire is going to be one of the chief motives of your life, from the first day on which you enter your profession until the day when you are too old to care. That will be the natural thing - the life that will come to you of its own accord. Any other kind of life, if you lead it, will be the result of conscious and continuous effort. If you do nothing about, if you drift with the stream, you will in fact be an ‘inner ringer.” I don’t say you’ll be a successful one; that’s as may be. But whether by pining and moping outside Rings that you can never enter, or by passing triumphantly further and further in - one way or another you will be that kind of man. I have already made it fairly clear that I think it better for you not to be that kind of man.”  What if all the fighting, the posturing, the signaling, and the positioning of social media isn’t because social media is the marketplace of ideas, but because social media is one giant arena for people to compete for the various inner rings of culture and society - and what if trolls and the communities they form is an example of an inner ring at work on a public scale?
4.4: Recall the story of Ed earlier in this episode, the widower living in a motel in Nebraska. Remember how he bragged about having thousands of followers on Twitter and how some of those followers were big-name conservative leaders? What is the essence of Ed’s boast here? I’d posit that Ed is describing that he has made it into the Inner Ring that he had been chasing - that he has attained the status of being “one of them” for a group of people who gives him the significance he is seeking. Of course, it turns out that Ed doesn’t actually have thousands of followers and is followed by copycat accounts, but for Ed, that doesn’t matter; it’s his mistaken belief that he belongs that gives him an identity that matters to him. And what if this isn’t true for just Ed, but also true for other trolls and extremists like him? I’m going to recall three quotes from earlier in the episode from Bail and link them together. The first one is this: Even if the fame extremists generate has little significance beyond small groups of other outcasts, the research my colleagues and I conducted suggests that social media give extremists a sense of purpose, community, and—most importantly—self-worth. The second one is this: “Though it may seem that social media extremists are most concerned with taking down the other side through superior argumentation—ideally laced with wry humor or sarcasm—my research suggests that these attacks also serve a ritual function that pushes extremists closer together.” The third one is this: the further people become committed to radical views, the more difficult these commitments become to undo, and the more people come to rely on the status and support system that cults create. What if Bail is describing an Inner Ring at work? What if trolling is the fruit of what Lewis describes when he says “passion for the Inner Ring is most skillful in making a man who is not yet a very bad man do very bad things”? And if Bail and Lewis are describing the same problem, what if the solution is similar?
4.5: Lewis argues that the only way to avoid being driven by the passion to always belong to an Inner Ring is to recognize this passion and desire and actively choose to resist it and fight against it - and that those who are the most susceptible to being led away by this passion and destroyed by it are the ones who are not aware that they have this passion at all. This is a quote from Breaking the Social Media Prism that I have been waiting until this moment to bring into the discussion, not only because it’s a relatively simple quote but because it’s going to be something that we look at heavily in the next episode as we get to Bail’s proposed solutions, and that quote is simply this: The social media prism exerts its most profound influence when people are not aware that it exists. I’m going to quote that again: the social media prism exerts its most profound influence when people are not aware that it exists. For Lewis, those who are unaware of their desire to belong to the inner ring will suffer the most from being swept away by this desire to do whatever it takes to belong to whatever inner ring we desire to belong to. For Bail, those who are unaware of the social media prism and how it distorts and bends our identities will suffer the most from having their identities be bent and their behaviors be distorted to conform to distorted identities. For Lewis, we must actively recognize this passion if we are to resist it; for Bail, we must actively recognize these effects if we are to correct for them. If we are driven not by information, but by identity; if our identity is determined not primarily by what we think, but by what we love; if we love not the things we think we love, but love belonging and acceptance from others who have the identity we want to have, then the starting point for combatting political extremism and online trolling is the same starting point for talking with someone who is being consumed by the desire to belong to an inner ring, who is compromising their beliefs and behaviors to fit in with their dream social circle, who is throwing away his family for the sake of a title or career milestone, who is making every choice around making sure those she looks up smile in approval, who desperately wants to be considered a true believer or patriot by the patriots and true believers, and any other way our quest for the inner ring meets the social media prism. The starting point for all of this is acknowledging that we do not love what we think we love, and that what we actually love may be the death of us, and that we need to recognize these false loves so we can reorient those loves to something else, and on the next episode of Breaking the Digital Spell, we will look at Bail’s ideas for fixing the social media prism - and how the Gospel offers an even better solution.
 Bail, Christopher. Breaking the Social Media Prism (p. 56). Princeton University Press. Kindle Edition.
 Bail, Christopher. Breaking the Social Media Prism (p. 59). Princeton University Press. Kindle Edition.
 Bail, Christopher. Breaking the Social Media Prism (p. 58). Princeton University Press. Kindle Edition.
 Bail, Christopher. Breaking the Social Media Prism (p. 63). Princeton University Press. Kindle Edition.
 Bail, Christopher. Breaking the Social Media Prism (p. 62). Princeton University Press. Kindle Edition.
 Bail, Christopher. Breaking the Social Media Prism (p. 65). Princeton University Press. Kindle Edition.
 Bail, Christopher. Breaking the Social Media Prism (pp. 65-66). Princeton University Press. Kindle Edition.
 Bail, Christopher. Breaking the Social Media Prism (pp. 66-67). Princeton University Press. Kindle Edition.
 Bail, Christopher. Breaking the Social Media Prism (pp. 76-77). Princeton University Press. Kindle Edition.
 Bail, Christopher. Breaking the Social Media Prism (pp. 82-83). Princeton University Press. Kindle Edition.
 Cameron, Andrew B.J. & Rosner, Brian S. The Trials of Theology (p. 76). Christian Focus Publications.
 Lewis, C.S. “The Inner Ring” in Essay Collection, ed. Lesley Walmsley (p.319). London, HarperCollins, 2000.
 Lewis, C.S. “The Inner Ring” in Essay Collection, ed. Lesley Walmsley (p.318). London, HarperCollins, 2000.
 Bail, Christopher. Breaking the Social Media Prism (pp. 66-67). Princeton University Press. Kindle Edition.
 Bail, Christopher. Breaking the Social Media Prism (p. 62). Princeton University Press. Kindle Edition.
 Bail, Christopher. Breaking the Social Media Prism (pp. 65-66). Princeton University Press. Kindle Edition.