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Saturday, July 8, 2017

Is Social Media Making Unrest Worse?

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The other day I was talking with a friend of mine and he mentioned how crazy his Twitter feed was these days. According to him, it’s completely dominated by people yelling at each other. From the description, the Trump tornado is a big part of it, but it’s not just that. As he described it, he’s seeing a lot of left-on-left yelling as well.

I’m not really on Twitter much (though perhaps I should be.) But his description of things certainly mirrors my impression of the state of dialogue in the country. And of course it’s not just Twitter, it’s all over Facebook, and Youtube and essentially any place with comments or user-generated content.

Once we decide that this state of affairs deserves a closer examination, then, as is usually the case, we can approach it from several different perspectives. First we can decide that there’s nothing to worry about. That this is the same sort of factionalism which has always existed, and that it’s not even a particularly extreme example. People have, after all, been disagreeing with one another for as long as there have been people, and even the slightest amount of historical knowledge reveals times in our nation’s past when things were much, much worse. As examples of this, in my last post, I mentioned the social unrest of the late 60’s/early 70’s along with the enormous factionalism which preceded the Civil War. And these aren’t the only two examples in our nation’s short history. As it turns out, despite the rosy view we have of the country’s founders, things were a lot more acrimonious than as well. If you have studied the battles between the Republicans and Federalists, and specifically between Jefferson and Hamilton, it makes Clinton vs. Trump look like amateur hour.

In other words there is a reasonable case to be made that we’re over-reacting, that the nation has weathered worse division than this and survived. That however much hate and anger exist that it’s manageable and unlikely ever to tip over into large scale violence. And, as reasonable as this case is, I don’t see very many people advocating for it. Partially this is because some of us (myself included) are natural Chicken Littles and we want to believe that the sky is falling and that the political anger we’re seeing is something new and terrifying. And this makes us disinclined to be reasonable. This is a second perspective. The perspective of looming civil war.

But the Chicken Littles and the doom-mongers are the minority. Far more people aren’t focused on the divisions at all. They have a completely different way of looking at things, a third perspective to add to our list. From this perspective they’re not focused on the anger, and they’re not focused on the divisions because they’re creating the anger and divisiveness. And they know that their anger is a righteous anger, and that their divisions are only dividing the pure from the wicked.

From this perspective we’re experiencing extreme conditions, but they have nothing to do with not getting along, or with an impending civil war, and everything to do with Trump supporters and the alt-right and white nationalists clinging to their privileged status (or their guns and religion.) At least for some people. For some others, the problem is the pampered social justice warriors who can’t stand the fact that Trump won, and who especially can’t stand what that says about the world they thought they were living in. And who are, furthermore, unduly fixated on achieving justice for imagined crimes.

As I mentioned, both sides are angry, but from this perspective there’s pure anger and there’s wicked anger, and all the anger on your side is justified, and all the anger on the other side is an extreme overreaction.

For people operating under this third perspective, yes, the current level of hatred we’re seeing is alarming, but if we manage to get rid of Trump in 2020 or, if he’s just impeached or removed from office under the 25th amendment, then things will go back to normal. Alternatively if we just stop pampering these college kids then they’ll wake up and realize that they have pushed things too far, that society can’t be perfectly fair and that attempts to make it so only end up causing worse problems than the ones they hope to solve.

They share the perspective of the Chicken Littles in believing it’s bad, but, for them, this badness exists entirely on the other side. It’s all the fault of Trump, or Obama or Clinton, or the Globalists, or the rich or the immigrants, or any of a hundred other individuals and organizations. And if we could just get those people to see the light or to go away. Or in the most extreme cases, if we could just line them all up against the wall at the start of the glorious revolution and shoot them, then everything would be fine.

I’m skeptical about any explanation which lays all the blame on one side or the other. And even if it were true, getting rid of one side is only possible through something resembling the glorious revolution. Thus I’m inclined to dismiss the last perspective as being both naive and, even aside from it’s naivety, offering no practical prescription. The first perspective, that the current social unrest is no big deal, has a lot going for it. And that’s precisely what we should all hope is going on, but even if it is, there’s very little downside to trying to cool things down even if they’ll cool down on their own eventually. Which places us in a situation very familiar to readers of this blog: The wisest course of action is to prepare for the worst, even while you hope for the best. Meaning that even if I get branded as Chicken Little, I will still advocate for treating the current unrest seriously, and as something which has the potential to lead to something a lot worse.

If, as I have suggested, we prudently decide to act as if things are serious and conceivably getting worse, the next question becomes why are they getting worse? Of course, before we continue it should be pointed out that the other perspectives have their own answers to this question. They aren’t actually getting worse, in the case of the first, and in the case of the last, they are, but the culprits are obvious (though very different depending what side you’re on.) But I’ve staked out a position of saying that things are getting worse, and that no one group is an obvious scapegoat. Then, the question which immediately follows from this is why are things getting worse?

Having chosen to act as if the current unrest is historically significant, something with the potential to equal or even eclipse the unrest of the late 60s/early 70s, we should be able to identify something which also equals or exceeds the past causes of unrest. During the Civil War it was slavery. During the late 60s/early 70s there was Vietnam and Civil Rights. Whatever the current rhetoric we don’t have anything close to the Vietnam War or the civil rights violation of 50 years ago, to say nothing of slavery. So if the injustice is objectively less severe, how do I get away with claiming that the unrest might get just as bad if not worse? All of this boils down to the question, what contributing factors exist today which didn’t exist back then? And here we return to my friend’s Twitter feed. Why is it so acrimonious?

You might start by assuming that the problem is with the users, or perhaps Twitter itself. But as I already mentioned this same sort of thing is also a problem on Facebook, and as far as the users, have people really changed that much in the last few decades? Probably not.

In my last post I mentioned a recent podcast from Dan Carlin. His primary topic was the unrest itself, and whether there was the potential for a new civil war. But he made another point which really struck me. Carlin, much like myself, is very interested in the comparing and contrasting the current unrest with the unrest during the late 60s/early 70s. And he brought up a key difference between now and then. Back then you could call in the presidents of the three major networks and suggest that they avoid covering certain stories or saying certain things on the nightly news, and if all three of them agreed (which they very well might) then with a single meeting you had some chance of influencing the narrative for the entire nation.

Obviously this is something of an oversimplification, but Carlin points out the undeniable difference between now and then. Even if you expanded that hypothetical meeting to include the top 500 people in media, getting everyone from the Roger Ailes (assuming he were still alive) to Mark Zuckerberg, and even if you could get all 500 people to agree on something your overall impact on what people saw and heard would be less than with those three people back in the Nixon era. Which is to say, when it comes to what people see and hear, the last election demonstrated that the media landscape, especially the social media landscape, is now vastly more complicated.

I admit up front, that it would be ridiculous to blame social media for all of the unrest, all of the hate, all of the rage and all of the factionalism we’re currently seeing. But it would be equally ridiculous to not discuss it at all, since it’s indisputably created an ideological environment vastly different than any which has existed previously.

Victor Hugo said, “Nothing is stronger than an idea whose time has come.” (And I am aware that is a very loose translation of the original.) I agree with this, but is it possible that social media artificially advances the “arrival” of an idea? Gives ideas a heft and an urgency out of proportion to their actual importance?

To illustrate what I mean let’s imagine a tiny medieval village of say 150 people. And let’s imagine that one of the villagers comes to the conclusion that he really needs to rise up in rebellion and overthrow the king. But that he is alone in this. The other 149 people, while they don’t like the king, have no desire to go to all the trouble and risk of rising up in rebellion. In this case that one guy is probably never even going to mention his desire to overthrow the king, let alone do anything about it. Because that would be treason, which was one of the quicker ways to end up dead (among many back then.)

For any given villager to plot against the king he needs to find other people to plot with. How this happens, and the subtle signals that get exchanged when something is this dangerous is a whole separate subject, but for now it suffices to say that if a villager is going to join into some kind of conspiracy he has to be convinced that there’s enough like-minded people to take the idea from impossible to “if we’re extraordinarily lucky”. You might call this the minimum standard for an idea’s “arrival”.

For sake of argument, let’s say that our hypothetical villager is going to want at least 10% of his fellow villagers to also harbor thoughts of overthrowing the king, just to get to the point where he doesn’t think it’s impossible. And that, further, given the danger attached to the endeavor he’d probably actually want the inverse of that, and know that 90% of his fellow villagers were on his side, before he decided to do something as risky as rising up in rebellion.

Which means our villager needs 15 people before he even entertains the idea that it’s not just him. And he needs 135 before actually drawing his sword. The actual numbers are not that important, what’s important is the idea of social proof. Everyone, particularly when they’re engaged in risky behavior, has a threshold for determining whether they’re deluding themselves and a higher threshold for determining whether they should act. And for 99.9% of human history these thresholds were determined by the opinions of the small circle of people in our immediate vicinity. And 135 people might constitute 90% of everyone you come in contact with. But humans don’t do percentages, so none of us are thinking, what does 90% of everyone believe, they’re thinking do I know 15, or at the extreme end 135, people who think the way I do? But social media, as might have been expected, has changed the standards of social proof, and it’s now much easier to find 15 or even 135 people who will agree with nearly anything. And if 15 other people think the same way you do, you go from thinking you’re crazy to thinking you’re normal, but an outlier. And if 135 people feel the same way you do, then you’re ready to storm the barricades.

Fast forward to now and let’s say that you think that the Sandy Hook Shooting was faked, that it was a false flag operation or something similar. (To clarify I do not think this.) In the past you might not have even heard of the shooting, and even if you did, and then for some reason decided it had been faked, you’d be hard pressed to find even one other person who would entertain the idea that it might have been staged. If, despite all this, you were inclined to entertain that idea, faced with the lack of any social proof, or of anyone else who believed the same thing, in the end you would have almost certainly decided that you were, at best, mistaken, and at worst crazy. But using the internet and social media you can find all manner of people who believe that it was fake, and consequently get all the social proof you need.

Certainly it’s one thing to decide a crazy idea is not, in fact crazy. As is the case with the Sandy Hook conspiracy theories. Holding an incorrect opinion is a lot different than acting on an incorrect opinion. To return to our example villager, you could certainly argue that in the past, kings were deposed too infrequently, that certain rulers were horrible enough that the benefits for rebellion might have been understated by just looking to those around you for social proof. In other words if you want to say that in the past people should have acted sooner, I could see that being possible, but has social media swung things the other way, so that now, rather than acting too slowly, we’re acting too precipitously? Are we deposing kings too soon?

Bashar al-Assad, and the Syrian Civil war are good illustrations of what I mean by this. Assad is indisputably a really bad guy, but when you consider the massive number of people who have died and the massive upheaval that has taken place is it possible that social media, and the internet more generally, made the entire enterprise appear to have more support than it obviously did? As a narrower example of this, for a long time the US was dedicated to helping out secular, moderate rebels, which turned out to be something which had a large online presence, but very little presence in reality, another example of distorted social proof.

None of this is to say that the Syrian Civil War hasn’t been horrible, or that Assad isn’t a bad guy, who should have just stepped down. But we have to deal with things as they are, not as we wish them to be, or as a view, distorted through the lens of social media, portrays them to be. And it’s not just Syria, social media played a big role in all of the major Arab Spring uprising, and it didn’t work out well for any of them, with the possible exception of Tunisia.

Perhaps you think that I’m going too far by asserting that social media caused the Arab Spring uprisings to begin prematurely, leading to a situation objectively worse than the status quo. But recall that things are demonstrably worse in most of the Arab Spring countries (certainly in Libya, Syria, Iraq and Yemen), and not noticeably better in the rest. Meaning the truth of my assertion rests entirely on determining the role played by social media. If it hastened things or gave people a distorted view of the level of support for change, (which I think there’s strong evidence for) then it definitely represents evidence of social media leading to greater unrest and greater violence and a worse overall outcome.

Social media is a technology, and a rather recent one at that (recall that Facebook is only 13 years old). And anytime we discuss potentially harmful technology one useful thing we can do is to take the supernormal stimulus tool out of bag to see if it fits. As you may recall one of the key examples of supernormal stimuli are birds who prefer larger eggs, to such an extent that they prefer artificial eggs almost as large as themselves over their natural eggs. If social media represents some form of larger, artificial egg when it comes to interacting, If people are starting to prefer interacting via social media over interacting face to face, how would that appear? Might it be manifested by stories about teenagers checking their social media accounts 100+ times a day? Or (from the same article) claiming that they’d rather go without food for a week than have their phone taken away. Or the 24% of teens who are online almost constantly? But wait, you might say, didn’t I read an article that teenagers still prefer face-to-face communication? Yeah, by 49%, but it’s also important to remember that, other than the telephone (at 4%), all of the other choices didn’t exist 20 years ago. Which means that face-to-face interaction used to be at 96%, and that it has fallen to 49%.

Obviously it might be a stretch to call social media a supernormal stimuli, but, to return to our hypothetical villager, I don’t think it’s a stretch to imagine that there are some things we select for when socializing with 150 people who we all know personally which don’t scale up to socializing with the 3.7 billion other people on the internet.

In conclusion to go all the way back to the beginning, I think the case for social media being the ultimate cause of the recent unrest is mixed at best. That said we do know that anonymity causes incivility, that social media appears to cause depression, loneliness and anxiety, and that, anecdotally things are pretty heated out there. But if you’re tempted to think that social media isn’t contributing to the unrest, consider the reverse hypothesis. That social media has created the new dawn of understanding and cooperation it’s advocates insisted it would. That social media is a uniting force, rather than a dividing force. That social media makes friendships better and communities stronger. Whatever the evidence for social media’s harm the evidence for its benefits is even thinner. In an age where connectivity has made it easier to harass people, to swat them, and to publicly shame them to a degree unimaginable before the internet age, where is the evidence that social media is decreasing divisiveness? That it is healing the wounds of the country, rather than opening them even wider?

All of this is to say that this is another example of a situation where we were promised that a new technology would make our lives better, that it would lead to an atmosphere of love and understanding, that, in short, it would save us, and once again technology has disappointed us, and, if anything, in this case, it has made the problem it purported to solve even worse.

As I have pointed out repeatedly, we’re in a race between a technological singularity and a catastrophe. And in this race, it would be bad enough if technology can’t save us, but what if it’s actually making the problem worse?

I know I just spent thousands of words arguing that social media is bad, and that blogs are a form of social media, but you can rest assured that this is a good blog. It’s all the other blogs out there that are evil. And based on that assurance, consider donating, you definitely don’t want to be up against the wall when the revolution comes.

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