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The Politics of Tik Tok, the Human Brain, and Culture

I have had the honor of travelling the globe over the past few years in my new role as an educational consultant. Lately, these efforts have been in support of USAID. The United States Agency for International Development (USAID) was established in 1961 by President John F. Kennedy. Its mission is to lead U.S. government efforts in international development and humanitarian assistance. USAID plays a crucial role in promoting social and economic development across the globe.

Last month, USAID personnel from around the world met for their annual conference in Washington, D.C. The USAID Global Education Conference took place, focusing on the theme of “Collective Action for Education: Partnering for an Inclusive, Sustainable Future.” Education leaders, teachers, and learners worldwide gathered to address learning losses caused by disruptions during the COVID-19 pandemic. The conference aimed to strengthen relationships, share knowledge, and promote resilient, accessible, and inclusive education. Sessions covered topics such as partnering, inclusivity, and evidence-based practices1. If you’d like more details, you can visit the official conference website. 🌍📚

I was part of a panel presenting approaches to making higher education and youth workforce development systems resilient and responsive to a rapidly changing and uncertain future of work. Our current period of profound and rapid change is marked by three main trends: technology and generative artificial intelligence, climate change, and interconnected, remote work. Along with Liesbet Steer (Executive Director of the Global Education Commission) and Dan Baker (Managing Director, Growth Markets - Accenture Development Partnerships), we focused on methods to analyze sectoral changes and align academic programs to economic development. We offered data on high-demand durable skills and guided participants through the development of employer engagement blueprints to inform strategic engagement with the private sector for skills development.

In the room we had over 55 attendees representing over 30 nations from around the world. As a group, we discussed these frameworks and processes for applicability in their local context to generate future-proof workforce development programming. Liesbet offered fascinating insights to the "Green Economy and additional global trends surrounding the "Future of Work," followed by Dans' sharing of Accenture's phenomenal new approach to finding "boundary" career pathways across existing curriculums aligned with local and reginal economic pillars. I closed with an "Employer Engagement Blueprint" we have followed with growing success in aligning talent chains to regional economic development clusters both in the U.S. and internationally.

What we see in many of our partner nations is an emerging social and political "bifurcation," or deep divide. Social media platforms play a significant role in shaping the information users consume. Algorithms, designed to personalize content, can inadvertently contribute to polarization and extremism. Social media platforms use algorithms to tailor content based on user preferences, reinforcing existing beliefs. This personalization can create “filter bubbles,” where users are exposed primarily to content that aligns with their views (Levy, 2024). TikTok, for instance, has been studied for its role in radicalizing users. Recommendations on TikTok often lead users toward extreme content through positive feedback loops. Misinformation, when amplified by algorithms, can promote radicalization among users. YouTube’s algorithmic recommendations have been shown to propagate extremist content. Consuming violent extremist material triggers further algorithmic suggestions (Shin, 2024). In the end, millions of people get caught in these "loops," further strengthening any bias or misinformation. What this does to the human brain is perhaps even more concerning.

We all live on a continuum of emotion and logic. Our brains have evolved to leverage both, albeit differently at different times. The amygdala is an area of the brain primarily responsible for regulating these emotions. It's our "fight or flight" reactions that can determine our survival. Reason and logic resides largely in the "prefrontal cortex" (PFC) of our brain. The PFC distinguishes humans from other primates, allowing us to integrate past experiences, link distant data, and engage in abstract thinking. Damage to the PFC impairs deliberate decision-making. Without it, behavior becomes automatic, lacking the ability to reason. When we are emotional, upset, and anxious, the blood flow to our PFC is restricted and is "re-directed" to our amygdala. The result, you guessed it. The more emotional we get, the harder it is to remain rational. This is built into our very survival "fight or flight" mechanisms.

When you encounter a stressor, your brain activates the stress response. This process begins in the amygdala, a region associated with emotions like fear. The amygdala signals the hypothalamus, which regulates bodily functions. The hypothalamus then activates the sympathetic nervous system, leading to an adrenaline boost and preparing your body for action (fight, flight, or freeze). After the initial stress response, the HPA axis comes into play. It aims to maintain alertness by releasing cortisol, the stress hormone. While cortisol helps cope with short-term stress, chronic stress can dysregulate the HPA axis, leading to continuous cortisol release. Brain Size: Long-term exposure to cortisol can shrink the prefrontal cortex, the area involved in planning and decision-making (McEwen, et. al, 2015). Higher cortisol levels have been directly linked to a lower volume of many parts of the prefrontal cortex. Over time, emotional responses to stress can become a vicious cycle in the brain.

The U.S. Congress recently passed legislation that would force TikTok’s China-based parent company, ByteDance, to sell the social media platform under the threat of a ban1. This move has been met with both support and skepticism. Lawmakers and administration officials have expressed concerns that Chinese authorities could potentially access U.S. user data through ByteDance or influence content on TikTok. The bill also prohibits ByteDance from controlling TikTok’s algorithm, which is a critical component of the platform’s success. The legislation aims to address long-standing bipartisan concerns about Chinese threats and the ownership of TikTok, which is used by 170 million Americans.

If you've been following my blog, you know how I fell about algorithms. As artificial intelligence continues its integration into our daily lives, so too does these algorithms. If you can control the algorithm, you can control the message. This is the concern of our representatives in Washington, D.C. Those messages, repeated and reinforced by social media, literally rewire our brains on a neurological level. They can shift our political and cultural assumptions over time. They can present a flow of information, or misinformation, intentionally designed through the algorithm to change assumptions that drive core values. This is the foundation of culture. This debate over TikTok is no small issue. Like any habitual substance, it holds potential to change how an individual thinks, lives, and acts.

So, how do we preserve our culture amidst this continuing wave of technological, social, and political bifurcation and growing divide? Recall observations from my previous articles and book "The Herd: How to Leverage the Absolute Power of Organizational Culture." The first step to the preservation of any culture or society is in its understanding. In that understanding, we must measure and track groups along that continuum of "consonance" to "dissonance." Too much consonance (not enough diversity) and cultures stagnate and typically, historically, die. Too much dissonance (prolonged division and discord) and cultures dissipate, collapse, and typically, historically, die. It is maintaining a healthy position along the Culture Harmonic that preservation and peace exist. That position, for any group, is relative to so many complex events surrounding it. In short, it's a moving target.

The phrase “The price of peace is eternal vigilance” has been attributed to Leonard H. Courtney, a British politician and the 1st Baron Courtney. This powerful statement emphasizes that maintaining peace requires constant watchfulness and active effort. It serves as a reminder that peace is not a passive state but rather a continuous commitment to prevent conflict and protect our liberties. Somewhere between privacy and freedom is another critical continuum. Whatever the future of our species, we will almost certainly remain highly social. It's equally certain that culture will remain a powerful force across our existence. We would do well to watch, measure, and strive to better understand the power of culture and be students in its endless study.

Dr. Stephen Dunnivant



  1. Levy, R. (2024). The prefrontal cortex: From monkey to man. Brain, 147(3), 794–815. DOI: 10.1093/brain/awad389

  2. McEwen, B. S., Nasca, C., & Gray, J. D. (2015). Stress Effects on Neuronal Structure: Hippocampus, Amygdala, and Prefrontal Cortex. Neuropsychopharmacology, 41(1), 3–23.

  3. Shin, D. (2024). Misinformation, extremism, and conspiracies: Amplification and polarization by algorithms. In Artificial Misinformation (pp. 49–78). DOI: 10.1007/978-3-031-52569-8_3

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