A cell phone screen held up against a cloudy. Donald J Trump's twitter page is displayed. The text says 'This tweet is no longer available because it violated the Twitter rules."

The Quadra Project: Social Media (P 2 of 4)

According to Jonathan Haidt, the fracturing rather than the integrating character of social media’s dynamic began to change in 2009 with the introduction of “Like” and “Sharing”, two similar options that transformed the exchange of person-to-person information into the mass distribution of opinions, rumours and judgments, without providing any substantial corroborating information. This process was abetted by the social media algorithms that favoured emotional rather than rational responses. Facts were boring. Extremism and lies generated more “sharing”, registered more “likes”, and earned more advertising revenue for the social media platforms.

Unlike the medium of print, where thoughts, ideas and feelings could be slowly considered in the privacy of individual solitude, social media became a communal gathering place of instant feedback where attitudes, values and emotions were shaped by group pressure and mob psychology. Its users, to boost their image and reputation in these echo chambers of shared opinions, even began to formulate fictitious identities. Misrepresentation became endemic. The “avatar” became more important than the real person. Success was instant internet fame; failure was instant internet shame. The cohesive forces that held a society together—networks of trust, strong institutions and shared stories—began to weaken without the controls that kept in check “the turbulency and weakness of unruly passions”, a potential failing in the structure of democracy identified by James Madison, one of the drafters of the American Constitution.

Madison was not ignorant of the chaos that could unfold in the midst of social disarray. Like many astute thinkers of the late 18th century, the political “turbulency” of the times were vivid demonstrations of humanity’s group psychology. The French Revolution of 1789 degenerated into a bloodbath of different “factions”, by which Madison meant, in Haidt’s words, “our tendency to divide ourselves into teams or parties that are so inflamed with ‘mutual animosity’ that they are ‘much more disposed to vex and oppress each other than to cooperate for their common good.’”

Madison was also aware of “democracy’s vulnerability to triviality”, noting that people are so prone to factionalism that “where no substantial occasion presents itself, the most frivolous and fanciful distinctions have been sufficient to kindle their unfriendly passions and excite their most violent conflicts.”

Haidt writes that, “Social media has both magnified and weaponized the frivolous.” The net effect is the erosion of trust: in institutions, in experts, in processes, in norms and in rules. The research is complex, Haidt concludes, but, “on balance social media amplifies political polarization; foments populism, especially right-wing populism; and is associated with the spread of disinformation.” In brief, it is unhealthy for democracy.

Haidt cites specific research on a pervasive print culture, in which readers were a “mass audience all consuming the same content, as if they were all looking into the same gigantic mirror at the reflection of their own society… . The digital revolution has shattered that mirror, and now the public inhabits those broken pieces of glass. So the public isn’t one thing; it’s highly fragmented, and it’s basically mutually hostile. It’s mostly people yelling at each other and living in bubbles of one sort or another.”

Donald Trump did not destroy the Tower of Babel, Haidt contends, “he merely exploited its fall. He was the first politician to master the new dynamics of the post-Babel era, in which outrage is the key to virality, stage performance crushes competence, Twitter can overpower all the newspapers in the country, and stories cannot be shared (or at least trusted) across more than a few adjacent fragments—so truth cannot achieve widespread adherence.”

Enter Maria Ressa, one of the Philippines’ most prominent journalists, who won the 2021 Nobel peace prize, jointly with the Russian editor, Dmitry Muratov. (The Guardian Weekly, 12 Nov. 2022). The Nobel Committee recognized that the principles of journalistic integrity are the guardians at the gates of truth, and without them, unmeasured information becomes a cacophony of meaningless noise. Without an agreed measure of truth, democracies cease to function. This loss of control provided the opportunity for the internet to be weaponized with fake news, misinformation, disinformation, robotically distributed alternate facts, and propaganda that can actively promote any totalitarian agenda by actively suppressing all alternative opinions—note Russia during the Ukrainian war. “In the Philippines, as a joke,” said Ressa, we have a saying: “First, they came for the journalists. We don’t know what happened next.”

Ressa is critical of social media because its business model is to find increasingly inventive ways to capture attention, to collect more saleable data on users, to more accurately target messages to recipients, and to corral people into identifiable groups that can be controlled with managed information.

When lies are more interesting than facts, then voters have no sense of reality, and the decisions they make are as unhinged as the candidates they elect. To summarize Ressa’s conclusions, “Impunity online becomes impunity offline, and what happens online is what happens in reality.”

The sophistication and insightfulness of Ressa’s thinking is exemplified in the following observation in which she connects Systems Theory with social psychology: “Emergent behaviour—the way a system behaves—can’t be predicted from what you know about the individual parts. In fact, the system as a whole exerts pressure on the individuals, a kind of peer pressure exerted by group dynamics, which often makes people do things they wouldn’t do if they were alone.” This helps to explain why the nicest of people will sometimes do the most outrageous of things, or get involved in the most radical of organizations. “We need the tech,” says Ressa, “but the tech can’t run us. The tech can’t create the emergent behaviour that is the worst of who we are. I value humanity.”

To Be Continued

Ray Grigg for Sierra Quadra

Top image credit: Twitter bans Trump’s account, citing risk of further violencePhoto by Marco Verch Professional Photographer via Flickr (CC BY SA, 2.0 License)