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An online occupation

As the conflict rages, social media content gets more polarized: Here's how to get back to complexity

Is social media the place where complexity about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict goes to die?

It’s a paradox of sorts that over time, as protracted conflicts become objectively more complex – as more actors and issues become involved – they are experienced in an ever-simplified manner. Identities are polarized between righteous victims (us) and evil perpetrators (them). Conflict narratives become less tolerant of nuance and contradiction. And social networks increasingly become ideologically homogenous.

Compounding the situation, in the past few years, most of the major social media websites have begun using filtering engines that personalize the data we’re exposed to. In effect, they create a tailor-made virtual reality. This process is exacerbated by a pycho-social process whereby many social media users self-select an ideologically homogenous community of friends — a process in social network theory known as homophily.

Both processes mean that people are less likely to be exposed to alternative narratives and views and are more likely to think that their reinforced perspectives, and friends, accurately represent the whole of reality. Such social networking trends reinforce conflict narratives, producing simplistic, rigid and polarizing stories.

This collapse of complexity is bad news as a wide-body of research suggests that increasing levels of complexity is essential for alleviating intergroup division and violence.

So what can we do about it?

Here are a few online-friendly and counterintuitive exercises that can guide us back to complexity.

Dis-Confirmation Bias

In his majestic “Song of Myself” Walt Whitman famously asked: “Do I contradict myself? / Very well then. . . .I contradict myself; / I am large. . . I contain multitudes.”

To contradict oneself is to be a thinking human being. To “contain multitudes” is to have tolerance for those contradictions. Of course embracing uncertainty and contradiction is not what we normally do, especially during times of conflict. Studies show that when presented with information that both supports and contradicts their beliefs, people are much more accepting and convinced by the supportive information, and much more critical of the contradictory. Often, exposure to contradictory information leads to attitude polarization, whereby people become more rigid and extreme in their positions. This tendency to search for, and prefer, information that validates our worldview, and to ignore or undervalue information that contradicts it is called the confirmation bias.

Exercise: For 24 hours allow yourself to change your mind on one important issue. Seek out a perspective you disagree with and generously let it in. Invite it into your home as a visitor. Show it hospitality not hostility. Challenge yourself to contain multitudes. If you feel comfortable enough, share it with your online community.

Rotate nouns

The philosopher, mathematician, and anti-war activist Bertrand Russell once wrote that whenever we come across some news about a conflict that our country is engaged in, before we make any moral claims, before we feel righteous indignation, we should rotate the nouns so that we separate a given action from country X and reattach it to country Y.

For example, events happening between Israel and Gaza could be re-imagined as happening between China and Tibet, Russia and Ukraine, the United States and Afghanistan, etc. (there is of course no perfect fit). Russell believed that doing so would reduce the likelihood that our moral claims about a given action will be distorted by nationalistic biases and act as a type of mental buffer zone against cultural narcissism.

Exercise: Next time you come across some particularly upsetting post, pick two countries that you are not emotionally attached to, and rotate the nouns.

Radical Empathy

During the 1920’s and ‘30s, the writer George Orwell, in order to better empathize with the downtrodden, used to periodically live as a homeless person on the streets of London. Such lived experiences challenged his beliefs and altered his moral values: “I shall never again think that all tramps are drunken scoundrels, nor expect a beggar to be grateful when I give him a penny, nor be surprised if men out of work lack energy, nor subscribe to the Salvation Army, nor pawn my clothes, nor refuse a handbill, nor enjoy a meal at a smart restaurant. That is a beginning.”

Of course, to cultivate empathy it’s not necessary to be as radical as Orwell. But we have to open ourselves up to the pain and fear of the other. In the words of Rabbi Jill Jacobs “During the current war between Israel and Hamas, we desperately need radical empathy. By this, I mean opening ourselves to the pain of the other exactly at the moment when we are terrified of this other, and exactly at the moment when fear for our lives and for our loved ones pushes us inward.”

Exercise: Look up and visit the FB page of someone who died in this conflict – on both sides. Spend some time there. Imagine deeply what it was like to be them. Read their status update. Smile at their terrible taste in music. Glance at their conversations. Gaze at their photos: their selfies, their friends, and their family. Remember that they too had plans.

Surprise Your Haters

When Benjamin Franklin ran for a second term as Clerk of the General Assembly in Philadelphia, he encountered an opponent who publically disparaged and lambasted him. While Franklin won the race, he was very much disturbed and angered by this individual. Franklin, however, set out to transform his hater into a friend. So he sent a letter to his adversary asking to borrow a very “scarce and curious” book from his library. The man, surprised and flattered by the request, immediately sent him the book. A week after receiving it, Franklin returned the book with a thank you note. Next time the two legislatures met, they communicated in a personal manner for the first time – a beginning of a friendship that lasted a lifetime.

Sometimes, during difficult conversations, we become ensnarled in dysfunctional and destructive patterns of interactions that keep conflict at levels of intractability. Contentious Facebook communications are no exception. In fact, studies show that these types of communications not only fail to change people’s minds but they leave participants even more convinced of their original positions. What Franklin did is break a potentially destructive pattern by violating the expectation of his opponent. He injected novelty into the interaction. Doing so destabilized whatever perception his opponent had of him and allowed an alternative type of interaction to emerge.

Exercise: Next time you feel you are about to fall into a contentious Facebook communication, do the opposite of what your instincts tell you. Instead of being highly critical, be highly curious. Ask someone (best in private message) about his or her experience, about their family and friends, about why they care so much about what’s happening.

Or better yet, follow Franklin’s advice and ask them for a favor.

About the Author
Roi Ben-Yehuda is a lecturer at Columbia University and John Jay College of Criminal Justice. He is currently working on his doctorate from the School of Conflict Analysis and Resolution at George Mason University. Roi holds MS and MA degrees from Columbia University and the Jewish Theological Seminary respectively, and completed his BA degree at New School University. Roi’s articles have been featured or quoted in publications such as the New York Times, Huffington Post, The Daily Beast, Haaretz, Jerusalem Post, Al Jazeera, France 24, The Forward, 972 Magazine, and The Epoch Times. His work has been translated into multiple languages including: French, Spanish, Portuguese, Arabic, Hebrew, Urdu, and Indonesian.