How Silicon Valley Divided Society and Made Everyone Raging Mad

Of all the fantasies about how the internet would improve our lives, the notion that connectivity automatically brings people together is the most alluring. Mark Zuckerberg’s oft-repeated promise to create a “global community” on Facebook is merely the most recent example. For decades, the utopians of Silicon Valley have firmly believed that digital connectivity will bridge all misunderstanding and difference.

It increasingly feels like it is doing the precise opposite, fueling a tribal form of identity politics based on narrow markers of gender, race, religion or so on. This isn’t the fault of the net of course—identity politics far predates digital communication—but it has introduced a new urgency and force. Just as Netflix and YouTube replaced mass audience television with ever more personalized choice, so total connection offers up an infinite array of possible identities. Online, anyone can find any type of community they wish (or invent their own)—think alt-right, pro-ana, TERF, antifa—and with it thousands of likeminded people with whom they can mobilize. Anyone who is pissed off can now automatically find other people that are similarly pissed off. A network can bring people together, but it also produces homophily—birds of a feather flocking together.

Homophily is often the basis for a community, but what transforms it into a forceful identity based movement is some sense of shared struggle or common enemy. This is where the tsunami of information online has inadvertently turbo-charged the rise of identity politics. Because the internet is a bottomless well of available grievance.

If you are a transgender person, you can cite and share the awful crime statistics.

If you are a person of color in the U.K., a recent government survey revealed still enormous differences in life chances.

If you are white working class, data finds that your group has the lowest likelihood of getting to university and the lowest sense of personal agency.

If you are a Muslim, you’re more likely to wind up in prison.

If you are middle class, academic studies prove the last 30 years of globalization has led to an unprecedented decline in your wages.

If you are a woman, you’re still earning less than men for the equivalent work.

And on and on and on. Spend a little time on social media: you won’t go five minutes without seeing a report about how badly group x or group y is being treated.

I don’t mean to denigrate these issues, since all the reports I cite above are accurate and reflect genuine problems. And obviously some grievances are objectively more serious than others. The point is that every individual now has readily available a truckload of reasons to feel legitimately aggrieved, outraged, oppressed, or threatened—even if their own life is going just fine. For some people, being generally decent and siding with underdogs, this produces a powerful sense of belonging and solidarity with a group they might never have thought about until they kept reading how oppressed they were.

If you put a magnifying glass to a group of people, give them a label, collect data, and spread it about—even for very noble reasons—it inevitably creates an us and them feeling. Imagine for a moment someone collected some data about people from Kent, an area in southeast England, which is where I’m from. Doubtless it would reveal some problem or injustice, and it would be all over social media. Throw in a handful of viral anecdotes of Londoners treating Kent people with disdain. YouGov would then poll the region about whether they felt Kentish or British and some newspaper would publish the results with an exciting headline like “32 percent of Kentish People Feel DISLOYAL to Britain.” Before too long there would be a Facebook group called the Kentish Independence Movement; and another called Kent Patriots Against the Fascist K.I.M. Both would be full of angry zealots who’d never even thought about Kent before.

Essentially, the internet has opened up new ways of forming, finding or joining tribes that we never even knew we belonged to.

This alone is not necessarily a problem, and in some cases is both understandable and a route to redress an existing issue. (People who moan endlessly about identity politics sometimes forget this). But it is destructive when it tilts too tribal, when reason and argument give way to blind loyalty, when a single identity overwhelms all others, turning opponents into enemies and making arguments about who people are rather than the point they’re trying to make. It becomes dangerous when it’s reduced to a binary us versus them.

This is the internet’s final gift to identity politics. Silicon Valley’s utopians genuinely but mistakenly believe that more information and connection makes us more analytical and informed. But when faced with quinzigabytes of data, the human tendency is to simplify things. Information overload forces us to rely on simple algorithms to make sense of the overwhelming noise. This is why, just like the advertising industry that increasingly drives it, the internet is fundamentally an emotional medium that plays to our base instinct to reduce problems and take sides, whether like or don’t like, my guy/not my guy, or simply good versus evil.

It is no longer enough to disagree with someone, they must also be evil or stupid. And for all the newfound fear of social media creating echo-chambers or filter-bubbles of likeminded people, I think it often does the precise opposite. It’s incredibly easy to find opposing views on social media. I’ve never seen so many knaves and fools as pollute my timelines. Social media allows you to find the worst examples of other tribes (which are of course shared by your own one). It’s not a place to have your own views corroborated, but rather where your worst suspicions about the other lot can be quickly and easily confirmed. Nothing holds a tribe together like a dangerous enemy.

That is the essence of identity politics gone bad: a universe of unbridgeable opinion between opposing tribes, whose differences are always highlighted, exaggerated, retweeted and shared. In the end, this leads us to ever more distinct and fragmented identities, all of us armed with solid data, righteous anger, a gutful of anger and a digital network of likeminded people. This is not total connectivity; it is total division.

Jamie Bartlett is the author of Radicals: Outsiders Changing the World and a speaker on panels about the alt-right, Silicon Valley and big data in politics at the Battle of Ideas, October 28 and 29 in London.

Join the Discussion