Donald Trump, Neo-Nazis, and the Stanley Milgram Venn Diagram

KKK Rally, 1915, courtesy of the Library of Congress

I was researching small network theory (AKA the Watts-Strogatz model) today for work on social media (because I am definitely the worst person to talk to at cocktail parties), and came across an article by Stanley Milgram from 1969 promoting the “six degrees” theory. While I knew that the six degrees theory predated Watts and Strogatz, I never knew Milgram had a hand in it. Milgram, for those not familiar with him, is famous for his studies at Yale University of obedience and persuasion, particularly one study in which he was able to show people were willing to behave in a way they believed hurt others when told to do so by an authority figure. I feel as though Milgram is one of those scientists that fits within a certain Venn diagram that few others do (perhaps Philip Zimbardo, of the famous Stanford Prison Experiment).

Where the work of Stanley Milgram fits into the world

Moral Disengagement

There is an essential significance to the fact that there is a link between understanding how all of the world is connected, that all of the world is susceptible to moral disengagement when there is persuasion to do something wrong by someone in power, and social media, particularly in the current political climate.

… today we are witnessing a moral paradox in which individuals in all walks of life commit inhumanities that violate their moral standards and still retain a positive self-regard and live in peace with themselves.

– Albert Bandura, How People Commit Inhumanities, Psychology Today (Bandura, a noted social psychologist, is the author of Moral Disengagement: How Good People Can Do Harm and Feel Good About Themselves)

Hutu propaganda advocating murder of Tutsis from the Rwandan Genocide (source); see also Matthew Lower and Thomas Hauschildt, The Media as a Tool of War, Human Rights and Conflict Resolution, Issue 2, No. 1 (May 2014).

Milgram, in 1969, experimented with being able to transmit information to a target person (his words) by having subjects mail a document only to those they knew on a first name basis. See Jeffrey Travers and Stanley Milgram, An Experimental Study of the Small World Problem, Sociometry, Vol. 32, №4 (Dec., 1969), pp. 425–443 (this article is, unfortunately, behind a paywall, a common problem with scientific research). Milgram found in this study that people could get a document in front of a target audience within just an average of 5.2 links. In a way, we all carry out this same experiment each and every day, sending information to each other, influencing others in ways that engage or disengage morality.

Generally, group formation, per se, is not the source of conflict, but conflict is likely to arise if distinct groups are extremely exclusive and group members perceive their security to be under threat.

-Lower and Hauschildt, supra.

Extremist content on Twitter

Changing Emotions in Insular Groups

So while Milgram’s works address our connected world and our willingness to engage in harmful conduct when persuaded to do so by someone with authority, social media shows a world where individuals are commonly perceiving themselves as under attack by outside influences.

Extremist Content on Twitter

The question becomes what content can be shared to reduce the perceived threat and the risk of violence. Showing that a perceived threat is false does little to counter harmful conduct because perception is more powerful than truth. However, changing the emotions a person feels in response to someone they perceive as an outsider has a powerful impact on whether they perceive a threat. See Lukas J. Wolf, Ulrich von Hecker, and Gregory R. Maio, Affective and Cognitive Orientations in Intergroup Perception, Sage Personality & Social Psychology Bulletin, vol. 43, no. 6, at 828 (Jun. 2017), citing Esses V. M., Haddock G., Zanna M. P. Values, stereotypes, and emotions as determinants of intergroup attitudes, in Mackie D. M., Hamilton D. L., editors. (Eds.), Affect, cognition and stereotyping: Interactive processes in group perception, pp. 137–166, Academic Press (1993).

Changing emotions, replacing a feeling of unsettling anxiety with warmth when someone perceives an outsider, is a difficult task. In wartime, this is the stomach-churning counterinsurgency mission of “winning hearts and minds.” Perhaps the sinking feeling that I get when I think that changing our biases is as difficult as counterinsurgency is fitting. We seem to be in a time where all cultural segments are acting like insurgencies, militantly targeting outsiders.

Belief that their group is under threat: “They destroy people. They want to destroy people. These are really evil people,” Donald Trump, Oct. 2, 2018.

Strangely, what seems to work in opposition to these perceptions is the sort of emotionally-charged work used in storytelling and advertising (perhaps in another context, this would be considered the work of propaganda).

Shared countless times on social media, this advertisement for a Thai life insurance company encouraged warmth for viewers far beyond the borders of Thailand

What can counter the current crop of insularism? Stories that capture the heart. This becomes the key challenge for those who oppose extremism: how to use persuasion to capture the hearts of extremists.

I'm a writer and photographer. I'm also a combat vet (Iraq), and former investigator. I should drink less coffee.

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