How Social Media Distorts Human Communication


Not only are billions of people around the world glued to their cellphones, but the information they consume has changed dramatically, and not for the better. On mainstream social media platforms like Facebook, researchers have documented that lies spread faster and wider than similar content containing accurate information.

While users don’t ask for misinformation, the algorithms that determine what people see tend to favor sensational, inaccurate, and misleading content because that’s what drives “engagement” and therefore ad revenue.

As internet activist Eli Pariser noted in 2011, Facebook also creates filter bubbles, in which individuals are more likely to be presented with content that reinforces their own ideological leanings and confirms their own biases. And more recent research has shown that this process has a major influence on the type of information users see.

Even leaving aside Facebook’s algorithmic choices, the broader social media ecosystem allows people to find sub-communities that match their interests. That’s not necessarily a bad thing.

Image Credit: Gulf News

If you’re the only person in your community with an interest in birding, you don’t have to be alone anymore, because now you can connect with birding enthusiasts from all over the world. But, of course, so is the lone extremist who can now use the same platforms to access or spread hate speech and conspiracy theories.

No one disputes that social media platforms have been a major vehicle for hate speech, disinformation and propaganda. Reddit and YouTube are breeding grounds for right-wing extremism. The Oath Keepers notably used Facebook to organize their role in the January 6, 2021 attack on the United States Capitol.

Admittedly, some find these observations alarmist, noting that big players like Facebook and YouTube (which is owned by Google/Alphabet) are doing far more to control hate speech and misinformation than their smaller rivals, especially now that better moderation practices have been developed. Additionally, other researchers have disputed the finding that lies spread faster on Facebook and Twitter, at least compared to other media.

Still others argue that while the current social media environment is treacherous, the problem is transitory. After all, new communication tools have always been misused. The radio proved to be a powerful tool in the hands of demagogues like Father Charles Coughlin in the United States and the Nazis in Germany. The print and broadcast media remain to this day full of disinformation, but society has adapted to these media and managed to contain their negative effects.

The challenges posed by social networks

This argument implies that a combination of stricter regulation and other new technologies can overcome the challenges posed by social media. But such measures fail to address the depth of the problem. Social media does more than create echo chambers, spread lies and facilitate the circulation of extremist ideas. It can also shake the very foundations of human communication and social cohesion, by substituting artificial social networks for the real ones.

We distinguish ourselves from other animals mainly by our advanced ability to learn from our community and accumulate expertise by observing others. Our deepest insights and cherished notions come not from isolation or reading books, but from being grounded in a social milieu and interacting through argumentation, education, performance, etc.

Reliable sources play an indispensable role in this process, which is why leaders and those with bullying desks can have such outsized effects. Past media innovations have taken advantage of this, but none of them have changed the very nature of human networks as social media has.

What happens when platforms like Facebook, Twitter or Reddit start manipulating what we perceive as our social network? The disturbing truth is that no one knows. And while we may eventually adapt to this change and find ways to neutralize its more pernicious effects, that’s not an outcome we should count on, given the direction the industry is headed.

The most corrosive effects of social media are beginning to look exactly as cultural critic Neil Postman predicted nearly four decades ago in his landmark book fun to die for. “Americans don’t talk to each other anymore, they entertain each other,” he observed. “They don’t exchange ideas, they exchange images. They do not argue with propositions; they argue with beauty, celebrities and advertisements.

Compare George Orwell’s 1984 to Aldous Huxley’s The best of worlds, Postman then added that “What Orwell feared was those who would ban the books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, because no one would want to read one.

Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and selfishness. Orwell feared that the truth was being hidden from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of ​​irrelevance.

Hannah Arendt, another prescient 20th century thinker, warned of where this can lead. “If everyone is still lying to you, the consequence is not that you believe the lies, but rather that nobody believes anything anymore.” At that point, social and political life becomes impossible.

Daron Acemoglu, Professor of Economics at MIT, is co-author (with James A. Robinson) of Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity and Poverty (Profile, 2019) and The Narrow Corridor: States, Societies, and the Fate of Freedom (Penguin, 2020).


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