UGA SOCI 1101 - The Social Meida Prism

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Princeton University Press Chapter Title: The Social Media Prism Book Title: Breaking the Social Media PrismBook Subtitle: How to Make Our Platforms Less PolarizingBook Author(s): Chris BailPublished by: Princeton University Press. (2021)Stable URL: JSTOR is a not-for-profit service that helps scholars, researchers, and students discover, use, and build upon a widerange of content in a trusted digital archive. We use information technology and tools to increase productivity andfacilitate new forms of scholarship. For more information about JSTOR, please contact [email protected]. Your use of the JSTOR archive indicates your acceptance of the Terms & Conditions of Use, available at University Press is collaborating with JSTOR to digitize, preserve and extendaccess to Breaking the Social Media PrismThis content downloaded from on Sat, 09 Apr 2022 18:25:25 UTCAll use subject to Social Media Prism IN MID- JULY 1973, one of the world’s leading social psycholo-gists walked through the woods of Middle Grove, New York, searching for the ideal location to start a forest fire. While many of his contemporaries were conducting bland research on lab rats, Muzafer Sherif yearned to understand how human iden-tities shape violent conflict. Having grown up amid the ancient rivalry between Turks and Armenians, Sherif wanted to know how groups of people can develop intractable differences, even when they are very similar. Sherif planned to start a fire as part of an unusual study he was planning in this sleepy, forested town in upstate New York. With a modest grant from the Rocke fel ler Foundation, Sherif had created a fictitious summer camp and in-vited forty eleven- year- old boys to attend. The boys had been selected to be as similar to each other as pos si ble: they were all White and Protestant, and they were about the same age with no abnormal psychological traits. None of the boys had known each other before the experiment. Sherif’s plan was to allow the boys to socialize and make friends with each other, but then ran-domly assign them to teams that would compete in a series of contests. Once the boys had been arbitrarily assigned to be “Pythons” or “Panthers,” Sherif predicted, the mere existence of a collective identity would lead them to develop animosity toward each other. The experiment was designed to illustrate This content downloaded from on Sat, 09 Apr 2022 18:25:25 UTCAll use subject to 4how humans’ intrinsic need for belonging could produce the type of tragic intergroup hatred that Sherif had witnessed as a child.1But Sherif was wrong. Despite becoming Pythons and Pan-thers, the boys continued to play together amicably— mostly ig-noring their assigned identities. In a hasty attempt to save the experiment that he spent years planning, Sherif instructed two research assistants to sneak into the summer campers’ tents to steal some of their possessions. But Sherif’s attempt to goad the boys into conflict also failed. The boys calmly discussed the sit-uation, swore to each other that they were innocent, and sensi-bly concluded that the camp’s laundry ser vice had lost the cloth-ing items that had been stolen. When the campers later began to cast suspicion on their “camp counselors” (the researchers), Sherif— who had been drinking— pulled his two research assis-tants into the woods and began excoriating them. When he raised his fist as if to hit one of them, the young gradu ate stu-dent reportedly said, “Dr.Sherif, if you do it, I’m gonna hit you.”2 Fortunately, the older man came to his senses and stormed off angrily. And while the three researchers were comically oblivi-ous to the children’s peaceful example of conflict resolution, they eventually de cided that no one needed to set a forest fire that night— a stunt that had been intended to determine if the boys could overcome their differences to address a shared threat.The story of Sherif’s unusual research does not end there. Un-deterred by the failure of his experiment in upstate New York, Sherif created another fictitious summer camp one year later in Robbers Cave, Oklahoma. Once again, he recruited a group of very similar young boys. But in this now infamous experiment, the boys were not allowed to make friends with each other be-fore being assigned to dif fer ent teams. Instead, the two groups were segregated on opposite sides of a lake. The Rattlers and Ea-gles were not told about each other’s existence when they arrived, and they engaged in the wholesome activities characteristic of U.S. Boy Scout camps in the mid-1970s. Yet after a brief period This content downloaded from on Sat, 09 Apr 2022 18:25:25 UTCAll use subject to SOCIAL MEDIA PRISMof bonding, each group was told about the existence of the other and informed that the two groups would be competing against each other on the following day.Though Sherif’s first experiment had been a bust, his new ex-periment quickly devolved into something resembling William Golding’s Lord of the Flies, a popu lar 1950s novel in which children stranded on an island resort to murder to resolve their conflicts. Even though the boys had no reason to dislike each other a priori— and had once again been selected to be as “normal” as pos si ble— they quickly began taunting each other without provocation. After the Ea gles defeated the Rattlers in a tumultuous game of tug- of- war, the Rattlers burned the Ea-gles’ flag. Members of each group soon refused to dine next to each other and conducted late- night raids to steal personal be-longings from the other team that eerily resembled those of Sherif’s research assistants in the previous year.To his delight, Sherif’s second experiment confirmed his hy-pothesis: All that is necessary for groups of people to develop an-tagonism toward each other is a collective identity. The only difference between his failed experiment and this one was that the Ea gles’ and Rattlers’ identities had time to grow when the two groups were isolated from each other. De cades of subsequent re-search showed that people who are assigned membership in so-cial groups will consistently prefer members of their own group and punish those

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UGA SOCI 1101 - The Social Meida Prism

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