OPINION | Andre Vlok: Manipulation and distortion on social media fuel our conflict

A user browses social media platforms.

A user browses social media platforms. Tony KARUMBA / AFP

We often tell ourselves that in matters of conflict, we use reasoned consideration of facts, and well-thought out processes. Andre Vlok writes that this is not the case and examines how much control we have over our conflicts.

So if knowledge is to be of help in eliminating wars, it must be knowledge of ourselves
– Anatol Rappoport


We like to think of ourselves as rational beings, with our most important decisions in our conflicts, business, trust, relationships, financial and economic matters all being grounded in careful and wise thought. Our conflicts, in particular, are all based on a reasoned consideration of the facts, and our decisions and responses are generally examples of wise and reasoned thought processes. Or so we tell ourselves.

Our rational thought processes, however, play far less of a role in our conflicts, and in a different way, than what we may be used to accepting and what we may be comfortable with.

The role of the brain in conflict 

To fully grasp these new insights and their implications, we need to understand a few basic terms and concepts used in these fields.

We need to understand, at the outset, that people and groups are different in how they receive, evaluate and process information, how they react to that assessment, the level of control and understanding they may have over those processes and decisions, their suspicions, fears and values, and that these differences are influenced very much by biological, social and cultural dynamics.

These dispositions and abilities are, as we are finding out in great detail and depth thanks to new technology such as fMRI, EEG and EDA, importantly influenced by two main areas in the brain (as it relates to conflict), that being the amygdala and the prefrontal cortex.

The amygdala is the part of our brain that deals with our senses, memories and emotions, while the prefrontal cortex is concerned with our rational, conscious processes. These two areas of the brain are intricately connected, and they necessarily influence each other to different degrees. Depending on the dynamics of a situation, one of these two areas generally play a dominant role in our conflicts.

We have realised that evolutionary traits that may have served our distant ancestors well in their battle for survival (such as aggression, suspicious natures, in-group protectiveness) are now ill-suited to modern living and the need to live together in peace in a multi-cultural society.

Studying the critical role that our individual and group biological characteristics, genes, hormones, evolutionary mechanisms and other factors play in our conflicts can be a humbling exercise.

These studies show that some of us actually revel in conflict, in creating and spreading fear. How do we manage, neutralise or incorporate these individuals and groups in peacebuilding?

Bypassing rational thought processes

Some conflicts, especially those modern ones involving social media platforms, actually bypass our rational thought processes, using the more instinctive (and seemingly rewarding) emotive brain processes.

We can see from this research that we have evolved to co-operate, but generally only with and for the benefit of our group (however defined). The evolutionary benefits of the brain creating an “us”, a tribe that protects, that gives a sense of belonging and meaning also, in modern societies, creates a “them” that we live with, an “outsider”.

The hormone oxytocin (levels of which can be manipulated) play a big role in levels of fear and anxiety, trusting others, generosity, out-group rejections and compassion. The activities of mirror neurons and oxytocin levels can influence dehumanising emotions and decisions.

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Perceptions of unfairness in processes, structures, collective memories and outcomes can actually be experienced as a form of pain, with the same parts of our brains involved in registering physical pain being used.

We choose our leaders for largely emotional reasons. Physical factors such as size, tone of voice, energy levels, non-verbal cues and perceived competency still play an over-riding role in our decisions.

Studies show how our neuro-biological makeup can justify prejudice and unfairness if we benefit from it.

We still fear, and react to, perceptions of in-group betrayal and dissension. This differs between cultures and often override clear evidence.

Studies worldwide show that we still mostly have transactional leaders, whereas we desperately need transformational leaders, and that this is caused by our tendencies to react emotionally and to be extremely vulnerable to manipulation.

Social media – the modern puppet show

It is in the ubiquitous reality of social media platforms that we see the most disturbing new neuroscientific evidence of how our bio-tendencies are manipulated, how ill-equipped we are to deal with these manipulations and how this process influences our modern conflicts and wars.

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A consistent series of studies show how those likes, follows, and in-group membership that we find on social media have exactly the same effect, and involve the same areas of the brain, as we find in drug and alcohol use, the highs we get from successful gambling and even watching sporting events. Social media is purposefully designed to give us our dopamine hits as a reward for certain behaviour, and it is involved in three of the four dopamine reward pathways that are involved in most instances of addiction.

This technology is used not just to influence our reality, but to actually create it, as we can so graphically see in the US elections, the Covid pandemic, the Ukrainian war, our state capture disputes and so on.

Do we have control over our conflicts?

The research and modern case studies show how we are influenced by our own biological realities, how hormones, genetics, evolutionary traits and our own brain structures all play huge, often unacknowledged roles in our decisions and our assessments, and how that shapes our realities, our conflicts. It is easy then to approach our conflict decision making and peacebuilding efforts in despair or from a fatalistic perspective, thinking that we have minimal control over these processes and results.

This is the wrong approach, and modern societies will need us to quickly adapt to a better understanding of our control over these conflicts.

Neuroscientific conflict knowledge applied 

This research is bringing about vast changes to how we have traditionally viewed conflict and its resolution. If we remember that we are predisposed to certain actions and conduct, not predestined to it, then we remind ourselves that we remain largely in control of our conflicts.

  • Be careful with those “facts only” arguments

As we have seen, identity and value-based conflicts run on different tracks than merely fact-based arguments, and cornering our opponent with a barrage of facts may very well be counter-productive and cause further polarisation.

  • Remind yourself that anger, aggression and bad manners often stem from fear

This does not excuse such conduct, but it does make it less personal.

  • Accept that people actually believe what they are saying – as irrational as this may appear to you

Stop attributing malice or ignorance to some of these statements, as unfounded as they may appear to you.

  • Traditional dispute resolution mechanisms will need upgrading

Work done by Tim Hicks and others shows how important conflict resolution tools like mediation will have to be brought in line with these studies, so as to better understand and make use of people’s default neural dynamics. It is important to understand how people assess and process information during conflicts if we are to help them maximally.

  • Actively involve more women in peacebuilding processes and structures

This is not a politically correct piece of wokery, but a simple fact established by the current research under discussion. Women often have measurable differences in their neurological abilities and processes, and show an increased and skilful use of compassion, an attribute often missing in conflict resolution. International research also shows that peace agreements are 64% more likely to fail without the participation of women.

  • Actively set out to constructively and deal with the past

The observed fact that people view history through different lenses does not detract from the fact that a shared history that shares some aspects of that reality is very beneficial to groups in conflict. Our neurological processes can struggle to deal with conflict in the present when there are real or perceived past injustices with current consequences.

  • Be very clear, in word and deed, that both individual and social change is possible

In our conflict work, however minimal it may be, we need to show those small victories, we need to understand and inspire people that even if we get better at conflict one conversation, one street at a time, it is possible, and it is necessary.

Neuroscience is showing us, in at times a disturbing fashion, how our thought and decision-making processes work during conflicts, how vulnerable we are to manipulation and distortion, and how we can use this new knowledge to meet our new and old conflict challenges.

– Andre Vlok is a negotiator, conflict and employment dispute specialist and based in Port Elizabeth.