Social Media, systems thinking, technology

Violence on Social Media: Feature or bug?

Ever receive a hate comment or insult because you expressed an opinion on social media? Does ‘Send bob’ sound familiar? How about libtard or bhakt? 

Violence, hate and harassment on social media platforms have been a fixture since their inception a decade ago. However, articles like “Instagram has a massive harassment problem” are doing the rounds with increasing fervor and frequency. 

Like most critiques of technology, the prevalent narrative is that of platforms being incompetent and irresponsible in preventing this degeneracy. The truth however remains buried, within the structure of these systems and in the human psyche. 

I’ll try to back the assertion that violence on social media is a feature not a bug using systems thinking and Rene Girard’s theory of mimetic desire.

Note: for a thorough and nuanced treatment of this assertion please read [1] in references which is the source of this idea in the first place; not breaking new ground here.

Also, here’s the original twitter thread that got me started. 


Girard’s theory of mimetic desire and systems thinking in the context of social media violence –   

  • Mimetic desire – the concept that we desire things not because there is an innate need or instinct but because others desire them. 


  • The model – our desires have little to do with the objects themselves and more to do with the subjects that possess or desire them. In a way, our desires are mediated by an external subject who functions as a ‘mediator’ or ‘model’.


  • Mimetic rivalry and violence – the fixation of two or more subjects on similar objects of desire leads to rivalry and violence. Girard termed this as mimetic violence. 


  • The scapegoat mechanism – society developed a mechanism to purge itself through periodic acts of bloody violence on victims who were made scapegoats. These scapegoats were sacrificed as a symbol for all that was evil and peace was restored. 


  • Violence and modernity – the modern world abhors violence. The march towards a peaceful society has not quelled our innate desires for violence but has taken away the old ways of sacrifice and purging which were meant to be channels for collective violence. “The modern era is characterized by a discrediting of the scapegoat mechanism, and therefore of sacrificial ritual, which creates a perennial problem of how to contain violence. [1]”


  • Social media as a channel for mimetic violence – Girard postulated that the intensity of the rivalry between subjects is a function of the distance between the object of desire and the subject. Social media has reduced that to virtually zero.


  • “Social media doesn’t alter the structure of social relations it merely makes some of them salient. [1]” Social media amplifies mimetic desire; the richest, prettiest, smartest, XYZ-est people are known to everyone.


  • Who wields power? “For Girard, to wield power is to control the mechanisms by which the mimetic violence that threatens the social order is contained, channeled or expelled. [1]”


  • Social media is the newest conduit for channeling mimetic violence. “It suggests that abuse, harassment, and bullying – the various forms of scapegoating that have become depressing constants of online behavior – are features, not bugs: the platforms’ basic social architecture, by concentrating mimetic behavior, also stokes the tendencies towards envy, rivalry, and hatred of the Other that feed online violence. [1]”


  • Trying to control hate speech on social media by having a zillion external moderators is naivete. No amount of reviewing will prevent this behavior because the cost of producing such content is essentially zero while the cost to identify, remove and moderate is finite. Given such lopsided dynamics, moderation (manual) can never catch up with production. 


  • Violence is an emergent property of the system – meaning it is systemic to the platform and its innate design. For any change to have material impact on this behavior it has to affect the core design and functionality of the product. Twitter CEO, Jack Dorsey even suggested they’re thinking of removing the ‘like button’ from Twitter. Will that be enough?


I’ll end this essay on the following note from Sundar Pichai’s interview with NYT, and whose situation can be aptly described by the following meme given the mess Google finds itself in:

Image result for this is fine meme

But there’s a deeper thing here, which is: Technology doesn’t solve humanity’s problems. It was always naïve to think so. Technology is an enabler, but humanity has to deal with humanity’s problems. I think we’re both over-reliant on technology as a way to solve things and probably, at this moment, over-indexing on technology as a source of all problems, too.

This brings us to question the following about narratives around tech-hate – are platforms *really* responsible for the collective behavior of people? Are they complicit if the downside of being intimately connected are violence, hate and trolling? 

I suspect that new social media platforms will learn, and focus extensively on these rather subtle aspects of features that result in harmful emergent behaviors. In the meantime, let’s just use mute and block liberally – it works fine.  



[2] Rene Girard’s theory of mimetic desire – Wolfgang Palaver


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