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Brugger: The internet can unite and divide us

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Facebook has become controversial. After I joined it, migrating from Myspace, I enjoyed the ease of keeping up with the everyday goings on of family and friends. I even found old friends and made some new ones. Then, I gathered acquaintances in interest groups. However, in the last 4-5 years, I have unknowingly been gathered into interest groups not only by Facebook, but by all my online activity. In a way, the online world has become a part of a myriad of social experiments and manipulations. Should we be concerned? Yes. What do we need to know about ourselves to regain some control of our lives?

As citizens of the United States, we have beliefs about ourselves and others. We believe that we are created to be equal and should live lives having choices in thought and action. We are Americans. After that, we are all various things, and that is currently causing conflict in our lives. At our biological core, we are beings built upon symbiosis. We need each other in order to survive. From our birth, we ask ourselves (and are told) where we belong.

Most of the individuals who traveled to what became the United States were seeking to change the social class they were put in by birth. When they formed a new government, they sought to create a government which would not restrict social mobility. The issue of slavery, the use of indentured servitude, and the practice of exporting unwanted British citizens brought in an informally built caste system designated by “colored” and “white trash”. During the gilded age, we added the “nouveau riche”, a wealthy underclass.

Caste and class set up tension between American ideals and social practice. However, American ingenuity developed clubs, associations, interest groups and even churches which crossed class and caste boundaries and gave us a sense of belonging. Until they did not.

For numerous reasons, American society has seen the rise of tribes. These tribes include gangs or militias. As history and events in developing countries show, tribes often produce conflict. Membership in tribes is totalitarian. You are all in, or you are out. Unintentionally, the internet has cemented the beliefs of the tribes. Although their members as a percentage of population may not be significant, gathering through the internet rapidly produces numbers of members, which would be impossible by other means. We can be convinced that our tribe is (or should be) more powerful than it is.

The less harmful practice of wisely spending advertising dollars promoting goods and services to only individuals who are likely to need them (notice the number of drug ads on nightly news?) has expanded with deep data to pushing us into political tribes. Written media has had the ability for decades. The broadcast media has only been able to do it since regulations requiring balance have been repealed. Online media has never been required to do it. Regulations on broadcasting were put in place because of the reach and power of the technology. There was a fear of (government) control and propaganda. The internet was naively seen by its developers as a tool for promoting unity through understanding of the wide range of ideas in the world.

Tribes can be a problem. The closest we have ever been to forming them has been allegiance to community, state, or our nation. Many bible scholars also say that Jesus encouraged the movement away from tribes in his preaching and practice. Religions can seem like tribes, however the development of denominations within all the major religions shows that adherents have resisted that impulse.

For most Americans, belonging to a church, a political party, a union, a fraternal organization, a civic organization, a non-profit, or a club does not mean that they always agree with everything done by the group. Functional families tolerate differences. Maintaining our individuality requires us to find areas of connection with both those close to us and society at large. Our survival as humans is dependent on our ability to adapt to current reality. Recognizing the causes of division will help us unite against any manipulation toward tribalism and the conflict it produces.

Linda Brugger, retired from the Air Force, leaning Democrat and community activist can be reached at She welcomes feedback.


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