A “complete unraveling of the social fabric of society” is one of the primary dangers that led to the founding of The Center for Humane Technology by Tristan Harris et al. Social media platforms and their business models are uniquely primed to reinforce and even weaponise negative vicious cycles that speed up this unraveling. As we witness all around us.
Today I bumped into several Hacker News discussions on controversial topics that had turned into flamewars, people from opposite sides upvoting and downvoting others in quick succession, and a stream of insensitive comments being fired at the thread.
What struck me first of all, was - regardless of who posted them - how incredibly un-nuanced and even cruel many of these comments were. Posted by people who truly believed in the narrow viewpoints they expressed: black vs. white, good vs. evil, with me or against me. There was no place for the reasonable voice anymore. And this discussion would only lead to people getting further apart, digging in deeper, and more divided than before.
(Luckily on HN - being the best moderated social media platform I know of - such threads are rapidly demoted and disappear from the front-page real quick).
This way every participant, unless they were deliberate trolls, was not achieving anything from the discussion. Only validating they belonged to the tribe and engaged in a pointless fight. Wasting their time, and making society nastier.
Note: The article is only attributed for how it defines Purity Spiral as a concept, not because of its particular quality and contents.
But what stood out even more was the fact that most of these people didn’t see it that way. Their belief is that their involvement is right and proper, and comes from having the ‘moral high ground’. This is a phenomenon I witness very often, where people who feel they represent ‘the good cause’ may not only be counter-productive in their engagement to others, but also are they driving their own community apart.
Just now I found an article by journalist Gavin Haynes that addresses this in more detail:
A very interesting read. Some quotes from the article:
A purity spiral occurs when a community becomes fixated on implementing a single value that has no upper limit, and no single agreed interpretation. The result is a moral feeding frenzy.
But while a purity spiral often concerns morality, it is not about morality. It’s about purity — a very different concept. Morality doesn’t need to exist with reference to anything other than itself. Purity, on the other hand, is an inherently relative value — the game is always one of purer-than-thou. […]
It is a social dynamic that plays out across that community — a process of moral outbidding, unchecked, which corrodes the group from within, rewarding those who put themselves at the extremes, and punishing nuance and divergence relentlessly. […]
A purity spiral propagates itself through the tipping points of preference falsification: through self-censorship, and through loyalty tests that weed out its detractors long before they can band together. In that sense, once one takes hold, its momentum can be very difficult to halt.
The author comes to the conclusion that:
The phenomenon isn’t going anywhere. These are deep psychological truths about humanity, carved into the cliff-face of how we construct our societies. The cudgels of morality will always be a convenient lever for hidden competition — you can pretend to be socialising the private realm, when in effect you’re privatising the social realm for your own status gain.
The problem is that we tend to see the dynamic for what it is only in its aftermath. In the moment, the mesmerism of ideology fills the screen entirely.
In order to stop the spiral:
Takes a much larger critical mass, hundreds, recognising the purity spiral’s signs and saying so.
The simplest solution is to notice earlier, to notice better, and to call it out as something that has nothing to do with morality, and everything to do with purity — and to say why that’s different.
If you call its name, it flinches. After all, the best defence against witch-finders is a population that doesn’t believe in witches.
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