A couple of weeks ago I learned about a report from the Harwood Institute for Public Innovation released by its founder, Richard Harwood. It’s called “Civic Virus: Why Polarization is a Misdiagnosis.” Within the report Harwood diagnoses America with a new malady, not currently found in any medical school textbook: a Civic Virus. The cause? Self segregation, due to the fear and anxiety toward today’s society and amplified by the smallness of online communities. (Eli Pariser would likely argue that this virus is also the inevitable result of the increasing personalization of the internet, but that’s a topic for another day!)
I’m sure there’s not one of us reading this who hasn’t felt fear or anxiety to some degree in the last two years. Harwood believes that “connection, belonging, and inclusion,” mitigate this fear and anxiety. I wholeheartedly agree! But what is the catalyst that creates these feelings? I would argue: kindness. Kindness, especially in the face of struggle, when someone might be feeling the most fear or uncertainty or anxiety, has the power to shatter these negative emotions and replace them with feelings of connectedness, support, and love. Has that been your experience? From everything I have seen in the last two years, Lasagna Love creates connection, belonging, and inclusion through the vehicle of kindness. In fact, a recent poll also shows that over 90% of our recipients report feeling more connected to their communities after they’ve been involved. That’s powerful.
Harwood goes on to describe that a side effect of this virus is fight or flight, and suggests that many are taking flight to online communities. He argues that this flight is so severe that social media is fueling the fire behind our separating ourselves from others. Our Facebook groups, our Reddit threads, our Twitter followers are constantly providing validation for our beliefs – because we are choosing to only surround ourselves in these spaces with like minded individuals, and social media algorithms reinforce this process by feeding us information that fits our online profiles.
These groups, or tribes as Harwood refers to them, provide a space on the internet where a person can feel as if they belong. As people continue to have these fight or flight responses, they continue to break into even smaller tribes – isolating themselves from those who might disagree with them or think differently. Harwood argues that to cure the virus, we must start in local communities working to bring people together rather than driving them apart.
However, Harwood’s report implies that this is not already being done online in a widespread way across the country. Lasagna Love represents something quite to the contrary. While it’s true that social media platforms can cause individuals to segregate and withdraw, they can also be used to bring people together for good. Not all social communities are nefarious, and in fact Lasagna Love showcases a perfect example of a community that is intentionally inclusive, building on a highly positive shared purpose with zero judgment.
We believe that while social media may well be a fundamental cause of Harwood’s Civic Virus, it is essential that it also becomes part of the cure. Social media is where many people turn when they are feeling fear or anxiety, especially in the early days of the pandemic when connecting in person was difficult. But think about it: 82% of the U.S. population has a social media presence, and they average 145 minutes each day spent scrolling. In order to have an impact, it is critical to meet people where they are – and they are on social media – not where we might wish them to be. Lasagna Love has grown an inclusive, diverse global community dedicated to helping our neighbors and spreading kindness, and we’ve done it all through the power of social media. If social media isn’t part of the treatment for Harwood’s newly minted virus, the cure will not be successful.
But perhaps Lasagna Love is the exception, alone in the vast multitude of social media in facilitating real life connectedness. Thank goodness we’re not! There are so many online communities in addition to ours that bring people together, increase connectedness, belonging, inclusion, and spread kindness. Some communities are small and growing, for example Little Hearts of Kindness, a Facebook group with the mission to raise awareness of ways families can help others in need and have their children be an active participant in the process. Their group is a prime blueprint of how to take people who harbor these fears and anxieties, and channel them into helping others. There are hundreds, if not thousands of “neighbors helping neighbors” Facebook groups across the country, many of which I’ve had the pleasure of being a part of in the early days of Lasagna Love. These are hyperlocal groups that are focused on supporting one another, spreading kindness, and facilitating connections. At the other end of the spectrum, some online communities have an enormous reach. For example, Good News Network (GNN), a website with over 21,000 archived news stories highlighting positivity. Another great example is Upworthy, an online media company dedicated to positive storytelling that highlights simple but incredible stories of humanity and kindness. Harwood argues that news and social media are intentionally stoking polarization – but outlets like GNN and Upworthy are news organizations doing the exact opposite.
It’s true that some online tribes target individuals emotionally to make them withdraw from others – but not when it comes to communities formed on the basis of kindness; here, we do the opposite. We offer a space where emotions are encouraged, but not to create fear and anger. Instead, it is to encourage others to join us and make their own connections. We thrive on emotion – empathy, joyfulness, sadness, passion, grief; emotions have guided us throughout the last few years of a global pandemic. Through the power of our shared purpose, we’ve been able to build an international community working together to provide for our neighbors.
We don’t disagree with Harwood’s research. We agree with his diagnosis, but believe there’s more to unpack. The report concludes, “…there is a desperate search for acceptance and belonging.” There is – but that void can be filled with positive human connection and causes, not exclusively negative ones. We have proven that social media can be leveraged for positive impact, and it’s a positive impact to build communities of kindness. Communities of neighbors helping each other. Social media isn’t exclusively fueling the fire of polarization, it’s fueling action – to do, to help, and to break down barriers created by polarization. Keep building the movement, and together we can work towards a cure for this civic virus.