Hate crimes and Frontline’s “The Facebook Dilemma” highlight the dangerous tribalism of social media

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg testifies before a U.S. Senate joint hearing on Capitol Hill as seen in "Frontline's" documentary "The Facebook Dilemma."
(Leah Millis / Reuters)
Television Critic

The alleged Pittsburgh synagogue shooter posted his hateful, racist screeds against Jews and immigrants on a website favored by neo-Nazis. The Florida mail bomber suspect’s all-caps rants against Democrats, the media and critics of the president received likes on Twitter. And the gunman charged in the killing of two random black shoppers at a Kentucky supermarket posted his views often on Facebook and Twitter.

Robert Bowers, Cesar Sayoc and Gregory Bush have been called extremists in the days and hours following their arrests. Gunman Bowers is alleged to have killed 11 innocent people Saturday when he stormed a synagogue. Sayoc is believed to have made at least 14 explosive devices that he mailed to Democratic targets including former President Obama and U.S. Rep. Maxine Waters of Los Angeles. Authorities said Bush headed to the supermarket where he did his killing after being thwarted from entering a black church.

But these reprehensible men were hardly alone.

They were part of a community where dangerous fringe ideologies share the same space with cat memes and Kardashian gossip. Twitter, Facebook and the bottomless pit of smaller platforms that cater to every conceivable whim certainly didn’t invent racism or deadly partisan rancor, but they have connected people who might never otherwise meet in an ecosystem with few rules and even fewer personal consequences.


Just as social media has united millions under the innocuous banners of cute panda videos and ice-bucket challenges, it’s also encouraged dangerous strains of virtual tribalism with lethal, real-world implications.

The same “thumbs up” icon we click on to celebrate the birth of a friend’s baby is also used to applaud incendiary comments on the depravity of Republicans and/or Democrats, validate fake news and conspiracy theories and cheer xenophobic trash talk that should have no place in a country founded by immigrants. In your news feed, fabricated stories from Putin’s troll farm and elsewhere arrive in the same stream as breaking news from established journalism sources like the Washington Post, NPR or the Wall Street Journal.

False equivalency, however, has its consequences and we’re seeing evidence of that in today’s headlines. The twisted philosophies of two warped men weren’t nurtured off the grid, in secret, à la Unabomber Ted Kaczynski. They were posted in accounts that bear their names, on sites that collectively boast millions of followers.

Irritating ads are the bedrock of capitalism. Hatred, however, is not a democratic value.

Eight former Facebook senior employees, five current representatives and a handful of experts who’ve chronicled the company’s rise shed light on how we got here in “Frontline’s” “The Facebook Dilemma,” a two-part documentary that fortuitously airs Monday and Tuesday on PBS.

The investigative film focuses mainly on the machinations and influence of Facebook. But in exploring the rise of creator Mark Zuckerberg’s “digital nation state,” the series poses profound questions about corporate responsibility, the behavioral manipulation of users and what happens when a force for good is weaponized.


Wael Ghonim, the Egyptian Google marketing executive who helped spark the Arab Spring by encouraging protesters to gather in Tahrir Square, recalls how Facebook gave Egypt’s voiceless a megaphone back in January 2011. The people united almost overnight to topple President Mubarak’s 30-year regime.

But Facebook was also available to malicious actors who recognized its power in the wake of the revolution. They used it to disseminate misinformation and create divisions within the democratic movement. “The hardest for me,” says Ghonim, “was seeing the tool that brought us all together tear us apart.”

“Move fast and break things” is the motto Facebook used in its global expansion, but today when it comes to repairing the damage, the unofficial tagline seems to be “Move slowly and ignore wreckage.”

Algorithms catering to what we want to see have created a digital tribalism that’s hard to untangle. The issue’s become more complex since Russia and other nefarious actors learned how easy it was to manipulate users’ differences of opinion into deep political and ethical divides.

The Cold War enemy found a weapons delivery system that didn’t require long-range missiles. All it needed it was user-generated sites, data and us.

The number of users affected by Facebook’s data privacy scandal keeps going up. It’s now at 89 million — unless it went up again in the time it took you to read this. Personal information, from “private” messages to movements around the rest of the internet, was mined by marketing firms but also by political consultant and strategies firms. The data they culled provided invaluable insight into Americans’ behavioral patterns. Foes used it in efforts to undermine our faith in democracy and to influence the 2016 election.


It makes that stalker-like pop-up ad for that pair of shoes you almost bought at 3 a.m. feel like a quaint privacy intrusion from a simpler time.

Irritating ads are the bedrock of capitalism. Hatred, however, is not a democratic value. And though negative campaigning dates back to our earliest elections, it’s doubtful the heated rhetoric of this season’s midterm campaigns would have crossed the red lines it has without social media doing it first.

Political ads and rallies are more like battle cries against an encroaching army of evil than the standard dirty campaign attacks on voting records and questionable ethics.

Rep. Duncan Hunter, who’s under indictment as he seeks a sixth term, accused his opponent in California’s 50th district, Ammar Campa-Najjar, of having family ties to the Muslim Brotherhood. Campa-Najjar is Christian.

Rep. Scott Wagner promised in an ad to “stomp all over” his opponent’s face with “golf spikes” in his run for governor of Pennsylvania. It borrows from Donald Trump’s winning “Lock Her Up” strategy, a campaign tactic that borrowed from the questionable content of conspiratorial websites. It’s what experts call “appealing to the base.” Or the tribe.

Law enforcement and the media are still examining the digital footprints of the Pennsylvania gunman, the Kentucky shooter and the alleged Florida terrorist for clues to their motivations. What drove them to commit these abhorrent acts against fellow Americans and human beings? It wasn’t social media. But social media did allow them to hide in plain sight, among company who gave their views the thumbs up.


Frontline: “The Facebook Dilemma”

When: Part 1 at 9 p.m. Monday, Part 2 and at 10 p.m. Tuesday

Where: KOCE (PBS)

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