Mark Zuckerberg’s argument for how Facebook makes the world better may have a critical flaw

A professor says Facebook is actually fracturing communities. Mark Zuckerberg pictured.

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A professor says Facebook is actually fracturing communities. Mark Zuckerberg pictured.
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Paul Marotta/Getty Images

  • Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said the social-media platform is increasing empathy between people.
  • That’s because people can bond over shared interests, Zuckerberg said.
  • Some experts disagree: One professor said Facebook actually encourages us to hold more strongly to our beliefs.
  • Other experts agree that Facebook fosters empathy by exposing us to different parts of people’s lives.

On an episode of “Freakonomics Radio,” Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg made a case for why the social-media platform is increasing human empathy.

Debating gun control on a standard internet comment thread, Zuckerberg said, is “probably not going to be super productive.” He added: “It’s easy to dehumanize the other people; think about them as not human; not empathize with them.”

The same debate on Facebook, however, is likely to be much more fruitful, Zuckerberg said. Speaking broadly about “social networks,” he said, “first you connect over something that you have in common. So you recognize that the other person is a person.” Zuckerberg gave an example of a group of people who come together on Facebook because they like fishing.

“But then they go connect over other things, and they debate other things, and they find that, ‘Hey, we agree on other things; we disagree on them; but now we can have productive and empathetic discussions, because we’re all people, and we recognize our common humanity.'”

Zuckerberg’s insistence that Facebook is increasing empathy around the world by giving people something to bond over may be only half accurate.

I recently spoke with Adam Galinsky, a professor at Columbia Business School, and he said Zuckerberg is correct that “empathy is often a consequence of a social connection.”

If you’ve had a similar experience as someone else, even someone who seems totally different from you, Galinsky said, it becomes easier to see the world from their perspective.

But Galinsky disagrees with Zuckerberg’s assertion that “Facebook is a critical driver of that process” – or that it’s any different from the internet comment thread Zuckerberg mentioned.

While he said there’s been minimal research into the way Facebook use affects empathy, Galinsky cited his personal experience watching Facebook debates among social psychologists. In some cases, overseers had to come in and oust people from the group because things were getting too heated.

What’s more, the fact that Facebook conversations aren’t anonymous means people are “tethered more closely to partisan divides and identity,” Galinsky said. “It entrenches our already existing world views.”

It doesn’t help, Galinsky added, that Facebook can become a replacement for IRL interactions, meaning users may be socially isolated.

Some experts say Facebook is less divisive than the real world

It’s worth noting here that data scientist Seth Stephens-Davidowitz (who has worked for Google) previously told Business Insider the internet is not dividing the country, as is commonly believed.

“It is true that online you’re more likely to come across people who share your political views than people who have opposing political views,” Stephens-Davidowitz told Business Insider. “But what people forget is this is also true offline.”

And in 2015, Larry Rosen, a psychologist who studies the effects of technology, told The New York Times that spending time on the internet does not decrease real-world empathy. “We have more of an opportunity to build up a feeling of fairness and equality because we’re exposed to much more of everybody’s lives now,” Rosen told The Times.

Galinsky, however, said interactions on Facebook are “like the real world or more extreme” in the way they can fracture social communities. He said: “I would not call Facebook an empathizing force.”