17.06.2016

How social media is turning all of us into dicks

OPINION | | | |

Vast online echo chambers are making us stupider, more insular and downright meaner, argues Andy Hill

According to old-timey Greek ponderer Socrates, wisdom can only be arrived at through co-operative, civil dialogue between people who hold different opinions. That is, an argument where you allow your assumptions to be challenged by another person, however much of a twat they might be. This so-called ‘Socratic method’ is the foundation of all modern thought, and boils down to: ‘let’s talk things over rationally, identify our own prejudices, and get to the bottom of things together.’

In Socrates’ day there wasn’t much social media (barely even MySpace), so his pool of debating opponents was limited to whichever sandal-wearing beardo was foolish enough to pick a fight with him that day. With the advent of Facebook, Twitter and Reddit however, the number of folks out there with diverse opinions, backgrounds and experiences to test our own ideas against is functionally infinite, and accessible via a device that fits in your pocket.

So how come we aren’t getting wiser? And, more to the point, why are we in fact becoming infinitely more dickish?

A recent study suggests the current candidates duking it out in the US Presidential race are the most unpopular ever. By some margin. Check out this graph:

Crossed lines

Crossed lines

It could be because they’re the worst… candidates… ever. Or, in my view, it’s because social media makes us more tribal. If you’re a Hillary fan, you ‘follow’ Hillary and ‘like’ the things she posts. If you’re a Trump fan (well done for reading this far) you do the same. Nowadays on Facebook you can even use the angry face to throw shade on things you don’t like. Just a few short years ago our access to opinions was moderated by newspaper editors, chats around the water cooler and and a handful of (relatively) unbiased TV channels.

The reason this is important is that everything we see on social media is assigned a value and a priority by our behaviour (and that of our friends). Take the EdgeRank algorithm on Facebook as an example; you’ll have noticed on your newsfeed that certain things seem to crop up more than others. Well, Facebook wants to keep us all hooked, so it shows us things we’ve ‘liked’ in the past. The more we like, the longer we ‘dwell’ on the post, the more likely we are to see similar content in future. The knock-on effect? A radically distorted world view, skewed towards our existing biases and prejudices, which in turn breeds intolerance of viewpoints that don’t chime with the ‘reality’ we’ve become accustomed to.

And it’s a vicious cycle from that point on, because within a substantially sized group certain folks compete to be the one, ideologically pure ‘true believer’, be that Democrat, Republican, feminist, climate change advocate, Arsenal fan or whatever. Don’t you find people you interact with online increasingly ignoring conflicting voices, and getting more and more hardened in their rhetoric?

Harvard professor (and much smarter dude than me) Cass Sunstein argues that within groups of likeminded people “… the point of view of each member may even shift to a more extreme version of the viewpoint they entertained before deliberating”.

So what can we do about this?

For my part, though I despise him, I make a point of following Trump online, reading conservative newspapers and trying really hard to empathise. Social media isn’t going anywhere, but if people on both sides of complex moral, political and scientific debates could avoid goading each other (and, crucially, quit arse-licking their own side as a virtue-signalling exercise) that would be a good start.

How about following some different news outlets? Some you agree with, some you don’t, for a more nuanced sense of the state of debate. For every new thing you follow, delete a ‘friend’ you never actually speak to. Like Chloe from primary school. Even though she just had another baby.

Nobody gives a shit about your baby, Chloe.

And, y’know, be civil. Calling people stupid, or invoking Hitler isn’t going to win anybody round. Let’s all admit we’re sometimes wrong about stuff, and that people base their opinions on experiences we can’t possibly know, and still less understand

Say it with me in fact… “I might be wrong, let’s talk things through.”

Not so hard is it?

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