In the midst of one of the latest string of scandals to befall the social media industry, a Facebook insider revealed a bombshell regarding how this social media platform drives, promotes and extorts billions of its users based upon our collective proclivity to bend toward the negative aspects of our existence. Whistleblower Frances Haugen amassed a trove of internal Facebook research, which she has since distributed to news outlets, lawmakers and regulators to prove that the social network knew about many of the ill effects it was causing. She told Congress that Facebook was deliberately keeping people—including children—hooked to its services.
Facebook has been under fire after the Wall Street Journal published “The Facebook Files,” a series of stories confirming the outlet contributed to increased polarization online when it made changes to its content algorithm and was aware that Instagram harmed the mental health of teenage girls. Ultimately what she lands on is this powerful and revealing comment about the human psyche: It’s easier to anger people more than other emotions.
The Bottom Line
Our goal is not to debate the guilt or innocence of either Haugen or Facebook's motives. We would rather turn our attention to the personal and social health implications of Haugen’s statement that seems to have purposely gotten lost in all of the static and hype over her revelations. Haugen dropped an immensely powerful jewel that we should all pick up if we hope to heal ourselves, our communities’ and save our souls from our full-blown addiction to negative-thinking.
The Negativity Bias
The negativity bias is our tendency to register negative stimuli and dwell on these events. Also known as positive-negative asymmetry, this negativity bias means that we feel the sting of a rebuke more powerfully than we feel the joy of praise. This psychological phenomenon explains why bad first impressions can be so difficult to overcome and why past traumas can have such long lingering effects. In almost any interaction, we are more likely to notice negative things and later remember them more vividly.
As humans, we tend to:
remember traumatic experiences better than positive ones
recall insults better than praise
react more strongly to negative stimuli
think about negative things more frequently than positive ones
respond more strongly to negative events than to equally positive ones
For example, you might be having a great day at work when a coworker makes an offhand comment that irritates you. You then find yourself stewing over his words for the rest of the workday. When you get home from work and someone asks you how your day was, you reply that it was terrible—even though it was overall quite good despite that one negative incident. This bias toward the negative leads you to pay much more attention to the bad things that happen, making them seem much more important than they really are.
What the Research Says
Research has shown that across a wide array of psychological events, people tend to focus more on the negative as they try to make sense of the world. However, while we tend to harp on negative events more than positive ones, we also learn more from negative outcomes and experiences. Additionally, we make decisions based on negative information more than positive data.
Our tendency to pay more attention to bad things and overlook good things is likely a result of evolution. Earlier in human history, paying attention to bad, dangerous and negative threats in the world was literally a matter of life and death. Those who were more attuned to danger and who paid more attention to bad things around them were more likely to survive. This meant they were also more likely to hand down the genes that made them more attentive to danger.
The evolutionary perspective suggests that this tendency to dwell on the negative more than the positive is simply one way the brain tries to keep us safe. Unfortunately, the negativity bias can take a toll on your mental health, causing you to dwell on dark thoughts; hurt your relationships with loved ones; make it difficult to maintain an optimistic outlook on life; and become locked in the Matrix.
The Dark Path: Pain and Profit
What Facebook is doing for the sake of profit is merely tapping into the darkest inclinations of our collective humanity. I’m sure this is why many folks exhaustingly exclaim “Facebook is the devil!” If this accusation is indeed true, and I tend to believe it is, then how does that affect movement builders and community organizers? I mean, don't we tend to use these same tools and techniques in the work of organizing our communities? Aren’t we just as culpable of focusing on the negative impacts and highlighting the problems at a much higher rate than we create solutions, speak of the beauty in the world, or assign, affirm and take responsibility for our own personal agency as a force of resistance?
We've witnessed far too many community organizers, leaders and social keyboard warriors go at each other's throats, promoting the “call out culture” (i.e. cancel culture) and excessively bemoaning the ills of “white supremacy culture”—all the while using the exact same tools and techniques of ‘shame and blame’ and ‘victim and villain’ to dismantle and dehumanize other community members who they felt were less-than-perfect beings. If you were to peruse your local community activist pages, they often read like the local version of World Star Hip-Hop/TMZ with the community masses engaged in its version of “The Hunger Games.” going at each other's throats. Are we not entertained?!
Implications and Impacts on BIPOC Communities Who Use Facebook More
We, who claim to be community organizers, activists and healers, are some of the most prevalent purveyors of this negativity bias thus continuing to perpetuate the very problems that we claim to be seeking to eliminate. This is why it’s not just enough to want to fight back, hit the streets, raise your voice or get involved in fighting the injustices that plague our communities. No. We must willing and able to deal with the fundamental root cause of our thoughts and behaviors and then alter and heal them so we are not perpetuating harm. We must first fully recognize, unplug and then heal the wounds created by the corrupted system we are seeking to replace. Otherwise what looks like activism is really just a series of externalized avoidance activities designed to busy the mind from focusing on the 'man in the mirror'.
Yes, it's absolutely imperative that we never abandon the art and science of organizing our collective voices into mass action in order to precipitate the change we wish to see in our communities. However, when the crowds die down, when the collective chants fade, when the cameras stop clicking and the placard boards are packed away, it is then only our habitual thoughts and actions towards each other that will ultimately remain and this is the true force du jour needed to usher in the new day that we claim we desire.
And no, this isn't the glamorous work. Self-development and healing isn’t going to make you an instant social media star or produce that catchy photo of you in the middle of the street with your new “I’m not my ancestors, you’ll get these hands” T-shirt. More often than not, positive posts won’t get you those 100,000 views that get picked up by the system’s algorithm to then push it out to wider audiences. The TRUE fundamental change we really require happens on yoga mats, in prayer closets, on long walks through nature, in healing circles and in reflective journals and practices of those that are endeavoring to do that deep sustained soul work. True social change is an inside game.
Establishing New Patterns
The great architect Buckmeister Fuller once said, “You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.” This is the mindset needed in order to bring about the paradigm shift in our communities. What is our new model of communal interaction with each other?
In order to be effective, we must rewire our bodies, brains and souls to flip the script on the current negativity-positivity ratio. We must put the majority of our focus and energy on building new models rather than on destroying the current ones. We must put more of our focus on using our words and deeds to uplift each other more. We must focus on what changes need to happen internally within us more than we focus on jumping in the streets and seeking external change first. If we more focus on freeing our minds, then our collective asses will surely follow.
There is an African proverb that says, “When there is no enemy within, the enemy without can do us no harm.” Today, let us begin and continue a daily reflective practice and make a habit of meditating, journaling, and positive self-talk. Let us make sure that we are engaged in a daily practice of exterminating negative forces from the inside-out. Let us do well to remember and hold in our hearts and minds Daisaku Ikeda’s brilliant wisdom that simply states that “When we change, the world changes. The key to all change is in our inner transformation- a change of our hearts and minds.”
Yes, all liberation starts and finishes as an inside job.
That's all. Now let's go shine!