A devastating Saturday Night Live sketch earlier this year featured Kate McKinnon as the devil, gleefully hosting a number of parodied social pariahs. At the end of the sketch, the devil calls for her IT person, who turns out to be none other than Mark Zuckerberg, CEO of Facebook (played by SNL’s Alex Moffat). His one-liner? “I just want everyone to know that I don’t endorse evil, I just help millions of people share it.”
Those of us who do intercultural work could play a role in rescuing Mark Z. from the comedic underworld, but we will need to change our own ways to make this possible. Most education and training paradigms address culture in broad and unified terms, and confidently describe country norms based on decades of accumulated data. Supported by the bulk of the tools and publications in our field, they categorize and compare national cultures based on survey dimensions such as individual versus collective or task versus relationship.
Yet this standard intercultural tool box is becoming increasingly inadequate in a time of “culture wars” fueled not only by self-serving demagogues, but also by social media content that demonizes internal as well as external enemies, pitting one social unit against another. The question then becomes how can we better understand and address cultural disunity and/or disintegration?
Centripetal and Centrifugal
Every culture contains both centripetal and centrifugal forces that either bring people together or pull them apart. Shared values and interests are to some degree essential for the citizens of any country to live together in a cooperative fashion and to achieve common goals. In the early part of this century, a popular media theme was the “triumph of democracy,” and many social commentators applauded the global spread of social values such as democratic representation, greater freedom of speech, equal opportunities, human rights, and the eradication of chronic poverty and disease, all bolstered by cross-border economic integration.
The landscape looks much different now, with economic nationalism and a global pandemic drawing countries apart. There has been a slide toward authoritarianism and suppression of dissent in places such as China, Russia, and Turkey. Formerly model democracies, including the U.K. and the U.S., have become internally fractured by differences over hot-button topics such as systemic racism, social equity, immigration, urban and rural interests, religious differences, climate change, and law and order. Now we seem to be in a “spin cycle” mode, and the ever more ubiquitous impact of social media is receiving a large share of the blame.
Social Media as a Driver of Disintegration
The algorithms at the heart of social media are inherently divisive. User preferences are analyzed and recorded at a frighteningly granular level, largely because this is appealing to commercial advertisers seeking to target product placements as precisely as possible. The technology is so appealing in part because it allows people to stay connected with distant family and friends, and to offer inspiration and encouragement during difficult times. However, each social media customer is also shepherded toward mathematically constructed “echo chambers” featuring familiar topics and like-minded people who reinforce our pre-existing views along with products we are likely to prefer. Viral misinformation flourishes in this context, which is seldom subject to even the most basic journalistic fact-checking, giving rise to parallel media universes that each feature their own version of reality. Social media leverages human frailty in very compelling ways as well － it lures attention and repeat visits through headlines featuring titillation or outrage that attract humans like moths to flame.
What Those Who Work Across Cultures Can Do
Fortunately, we have tools at our disposal in addition to the familiar country-level generalizations. The ongoing integration of intercultural work with the field of inclusion and diversity has brought updated knowledge of the human brain and of sources of unconscious bias, as well as methods to counteract biases that are harmful. And the core intercultural discipline that helps people progress from greater self-awareness to other-awareness to bridge-building retains its potency, even when applied to “cultures within cultures.”
Identify Unconscious Bias
Social media in its current form is so captivating because it broadcasts potent doses of content that appeal directly to the more primitive parts of the human brain. These include both the brain’s amygdala, with its instinctive reaction of fight or flight in response to perceived threats, and the limbic system that can breed anxiety, stress, and negative thinking or feeling loops that run in circular narratives. Each of these states inhibits what Daniel Kahneman calls System 2 thinking, or the focused, receptive higher brain state centered in the frontal lobes of the brain that is conducive to new possibilities and bridge-building with others.
Social media tends to reinforce four primary categories of unconscious bias, summarized in the CIAO model, that are linked with amygdala or limbic responses:
- Confirmation Bias: The selection of news that users see and hear, served up based on their prior consumption patterns, generally affirms what they already believe, and the groups they are invited to join are selected based on signs of shared views or interests.
- Insider Bias: In-groups are created and strengthened through association with those who have like-minded preferences, while outsiders are invisibly walled off in other discrete social media units. Exchanges across such units tend to be negative, with commentators deriding the ignorance or moral depravity of the other group while receiving enthusiastic support from like-minded peers.
- Attribution Bias: Mistakes or misconduct of those within our own media bubble can be explained based on unavoidable circumstances; meanwhile, others more distant from us are readily demonized based on fundamental character flaws and conspiracy theories, being labeled as “deplorables,” “rednecks,” “pedophiles,” “savages,” “antifa,” or worse.
- Overconfidence: When contradictory facts or views that might burst one’s own thought bubble are conveniently relocated to remote media corners, the tendency most people have already to be overconfident about their own judgments is further reinforced (more than 90% of presumably well-informed college professors believe they are above average teachers).
Challenge the Algorithms
Social media companies have been ensnared by their own compelling logic and lavish rewards － free food, on site laundry service, and compensation packages creating 30-year old millionaires along with CEO billionaires － gleaned from the huge profit engine of targeted advertising. Attempts to address questions about their social impact are blunted because they do not challenge the underlying assumptions upon which the technology has been built.
Leading firms under fire from politicians and social critics have spent heavily to monitor their platform content and to extract flagrantly abusive content that incites violence or harm, while simultaneously attempting to preserve freedom of speech. First-line armies of content-scanning AI bots are backed up by thousands of harried and often puzzled contract workers in places like India or the Philippines who are assigned to filter flagged content, and then by headquarters teams to whom the most ambiguous or politically sensitive issues are escalated.
But all of these modern tools are still not nearly enough to counter the centrifugal damage these platforms do in augmenting public biases and pitting strangers against one another in ever more dramatic ways. The Pandora’s Box that social media firms have opened wide, tapping into our overstimulated animal brains, is overwhelming and must be countered with a fundamentally different formula.
Individuals with cultural knowledge have the skills to influence, both as personal users of social media and potentially as cultural advisers, the creation of new avenues for bridge-building. For example, instead of shunting users along pre-set pathways that broadcast alarming threats or invitations to cozy affinity groups, what if major platforms were to offer customers a choice between several new options, shaping an alternative set of algorithms accordingly? A simple set of options could include:
- Show me only information that agrees with my point of view
- Show me other viewpoints sometimes
- Regularly offer me stories that conflict with my preferences
Or, based on knowledge of bias and how to counter group think, we could recommend research-based coping strategies. For instance, these might include the request to “pair me with a social media conversation partner in a different part of the country who has a different perspective.”
Professionals in the intercultural field are also well-equipped to suggest ways of amplifying conversations about shared values in a country that have served as unifying elements of its social fabric. In the United States, such common themes might be the value of entrepreneurship, respect for frontline workers, caring for veterans, getting along amicably with extended family members during Thanksgiving, or the power of faith in its many forms.
Rescuing Mark Z.
It is not just one social media CEO who needs to be rescued, but, in a way, it’s also anyone who checks their media feed daily or hourly in a way reminiscent of Pavlov’s famous psychological experiments. There are of course numerous blessings that come with this technology, and yet it is far too easy to slide toward alienation and “dis-integration” from others whom social media discreetly shifts to a more distant place rather than challenging users with opposing views of the world. Many who habitually work across cultures are now confined to gazing at screens in their own homes; they can still apply their aptitude for bridge-building and constructive integration to the virtual world in front of them, including both those who are seen and those who are hidden from them.
 Rose, Kevin, “What if Facebook is the Real ‘Silent Majority’?”, The New York Times, August 27, 2020; https://www.nytimes.com/2020/08/27/technology/what-if-facebook-is-the-real-silent-majority.html?action=click&module=Top%20Stories&pgtype=Homepage
Tristan Harris, a former design ethicist at Google, now co-founder of the Center for Humane Technology, says, “We need to move from this disconnected set of grievances and scandals, that these problems are seemingly separate: tech addiction, polarization, outrage-ification of culture, the rise in vanities, micro-celebrity culture, everyone has to be famous. These are not separate problems. They’re actually all coming from one thing, which is the race to capture human attention by tech giants.” Swisher, Kara, “Tech Is About Power. And These Four Moguls Have Too Much of It,” The New York Times, July 23, 2020;
Casey, Mary, and Robinson, Shannon Murphy, Neuroscience of Inclusion: New Skills for New Times, p. 86.
 For more information about the CIAO model of Unconscious Bias, see Gundling, Ernest, Inclusive Leadership: From Awareness to Action, Chapter 3.
 See, for example, Zadrozny, Brandy and Ben Collins, “In Klamath Falls, Oregon, victory declared over antifa, which never showed up,” NBC News, June 6, 2020; the article describes how a potentially lethal local confrontation between Black Lives Matter protesters and armed conservatives seeking to protect their town is ignited by false rumors on Facebook and Nextdoor about busloads of marauding antifa, paid by billionaire George Soros; https://www.nbcnews.com/tech/social-media/klamath-falls-oregon-victory-declared-over-antifa-which-never-showed-n1226681