National politics are invading Jackson.
Wyoming Humanities is bringing CNN contributor and former FBI counterintelligence agent Asha Rangappa to town to present on the growing tension around social media’s role in our democracy.
Amid a continuing maelstrom of divisive tweets and articles about how social media was used in the 2016 presidential election, the talk, which will be from 5:30 to 8 p.m. Friday at Center for the Arts, feels opportune.
“It’s timely because of Russia and the Mueller investigation, and [Facebook CEO Mark] Zuckerberg testifying in front of Congress,” said Emy DiGrappa, executive producer for Wyoming Humanities.
Rangappa said the topic is important for reasons outside of what we see in the headlines. She said the news’ focus on the deficiencies of social media outlets and the ways they can be exploited misses a larger point.
“As someone who did counterintelligence, I think we need to address underlying fundamental issues when intelligence services are identifying things that can be exploited,” she said.
What the Russians manipulated in 2016 is a divisiveness that has opened yawning chasms between segments of American society. Rangappa said that without addressing the “tribal politics” that have taken over the country, we leave ourselves open to the same kinds of attacks.
Her studies that undergird the presentation focus on social capital theory, which investigates how people expend energy when building relationships. She said we have bonding capital, which we use to form friendships with those who are similar to us, and bridging capital, which forms relationships with those who are different.
“We have an imbalance between the two,” Rangappa said. “What social capital theory says is that when we over rely on bonding over bridging capital, we have exclusionary communities.”
Rangappa started thinking about this shortly after the 2016 election, and she shared her initial thoughts, naturally, on Facebook. That post led to more introspection and an article in The Atlantic titled “The social experiment Facebook should run.”
In the article Rangappa wrote that Facebook, rather than being a neutral platform, uses its algorithms to connect people who are similar. That could be as innocuous as linking two people in Jackson who both enjoy rock climbing, but it also means people are not exposed to opposing views.
“You need look no further than the ‘red feeds’ and ‘blue feeds’ on any given issue,” she wrote, “to see that, in general, when people connect on Facebook they are mostly connecting with others who have similar political beliefs, educational backgrounds and religious outlooks.”
Though the “echo chambers” that social media encourages are not problems unique to the internet — many of us live in segregated communities and seek interactions with those we already know — social media exacerbates the fact that Americans are increasingly less likely to trust those we disagree with.
Rangappa wrote that the best way for Facebook to combat that isolation is to create mechanisms that connect people who hold differing views in ways that don’t immediately devolve into arguments.
Her talk will touch on her ideas for Facebook, but she will spend more time discussing what we as individuals can do. Most importantly, she said, we don’t need to wait for social media companies to connect us across the divisions in our country and that the onus is on all Americans.
“Facebook is not the answer,” she said. “The solution really lies with us. The responsibility lies on the left and right equally.” ￼