A mob mentality on Nextdoor is silencing the voices social media should encourage

By Maina Cioni

President John F. Kennedy called on young people to “make the world safe for diversity,” but social media behaviors are threatening the opposite

The author graduated from Venice High School and is currently a junior at USC’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism.

Americans are trapped in echo chambers. Gone are the days when civility guided our discourse. The ever-increasing prominence of social media encourages us to excessively filter for content that matches our points of view — systematically silencing dissent and creating silos of intolerance.

We tend to justify closing ourselves off from others under the guise of needing space for our opinions. It’s one thing to seek temporary refuge from the noise of 24/7 public debate, but to board up your house and never leave damages our ability to think critically and compassionately.These are crucial skills for coexistence in a social landscape as diverse as Los Angeles.

Social media darling Nextdoor attempts to foster coexistence among diversity of opinion by allowing neighbors to communicate with each other about day-to-day life in their immediate neighborhoods. But simply creating an online platform for various opinions does not ensure all opinions will be heard. On the contrary, it can silence people whose perspectives conflict with the majority.

When conversation on a Nextdoor forum for the Del Rey neighborhood of West Los Angeles became focused on a homeless woman living in her car, the dialogue quickly deteriorated into a digital lynch mob.

Of the nearly 500 comments on this mid-November thread, only six comments were primary accounts — three reporting positive interactions and three reporting negative interactions; however, the dominant perspective promoted expelling her from the neighborhood at whatever cost. One particularly ugly post urged someone in the neighborhood to “kick her ass.”

The majority of neighbors were so averse to opposing views that they ridiculed and silenced dissenters. Some even urged retribution against contrarian voices urging a more compassionate response, with one commenter telling neighbors “there should be some measure of recourse against [the dissenter] personally.”

This is just one example of American society spiraling away from civil discourse in favor of knee-jerk calls for vengeance and malice. It’s not just Washington D.C. politics: Insulating our circles from responsible social discourse has eroded our ability to reason and empathize at the interpersonal level.

An article in the journal Scientific Reports concludes that discourse with like-minded people tends to negatively influence emotions and enforce group polarization, with social media user activity corresponding to the level of agreement with that community’s perspective. The article offered evidence that clearly false corroborative accounts are readily accepted, while opposing accounts are ignored and increase group polarization. Eventually, we begin to see people with opposing views as adversaries who must be defeated.

Too often, judgements are made narrowly; we ignore possible truths even if they are in front of our faces. These provincial mentalities not only undermine our thinking, they limit our progress. Valuable ideas are being lost to hostile competition in echo chambers. Instead of celebrating the diversity of ideas upheld by the First Amendment, we are now more and more likely to strike dissenters down.

In an interview appearing on Big Think (sort of a YouTube for ideas), “The Metaphysical Club: A Story of Ideas in America” author and Harvard University professor Louis Menand argues that intellectual diversity is how good ideas take shape. Shutting down opposing views, on the other hand, closes off the potential for effective solutions to social problems — a losing outcome for both sides of any debate.

Without a competing marketplace of ideas, ideas become stagnant and progress is halted. We squander potential for growth and development.

President John F. Kennedy once urged us to “make the world safe for diversity.” Instead of cowardly trapping ourselves in digital echo chambers, we should challenge ourselves to deal with differences in constructive ways.

Humanity has progressed because we have appreciated diverse ideas. If we are willing to expand our bubbles, see through our bubbles and sometimes even pop them, limitless progress awaits us.