I’ve been hanging on to a couple of articles recently that talk about some of the misinformation that gets spread online. Specifically, not just that the information is false, but that we don’t really seem to care.
Frankly, this column wasn’t designed to address the current environment. This format doesn’t make sense. I’ve spoken to several researchers and academics about this lately, because it’s started to feel a little pointless. Walter Quattrociocchi, the head of the Laboratory of Computational Social Science at IMT Lucca in Italy, has spent several years studying how conspiracy theories and misinformation spread online, and he confirmed some of my fears: Essentially, he explained, institutional distrust is so high right now, and cognitive bias so strong always, that the people who fall for hoax news stories are frequently only interested in consuming information that conforms with their views — even when it’s demonstrably fake.
So, the reality is, we don’t even care any more that the links and memes we share are completely false. So long as they sound good, and let us signal our “belonging” to the larger group, it’s cool.
Sadly, I’ve seen this play out on my own social circles. I’ve watched otherwise intelligent people post something demonstrably false, acknowledge that it’s not true and then exclaim “But it’s still interesting to think about”.
No, it’s not. It’s not true, why would anyone want to take away the “larger point” from something that isn’t true. The only larger point I see is that you are so desperate to be seen as profound that you’ll share something that isn’t even the truth because you think it makes you sound smart. That’s not smart, it’s pathetic.
Speaking of sounding profound, how about this:
To assess the reception of such bullshit, we presented approximately 800 participants across four studies with statements ranging from the mundane to the meaningful. We included some bullshit too. To produce the bullshit, we relied on websites that arrange buzzwords into arbitrary but syntactically valid sentences. For example, some buzzwords were drawn from sources such as New Age icon Deepak Chopra’s Twitter feed, and arranged into pronouncements like “Hidden meaning transforms unparalleled abstract beauty.” We asked participants to tell us how profound they found these statements, and correlated these ratings with other psychological variables.
A clear pattern emerged in the types of people who were more likely to find profundity in the meaningless. People who were more religious, more likely to believe in the paranormal, and more accepting of alternative medicine were more receptive to the bullshit. People who were less analytic and intelligent were also more likely to find the bullshit statements to be profound than their more reflective and intelligent counterparts. Our research also suggests that people who are generally biased toward finding things profound are more receptive to bullshit.
The correlation between lower levels of analytic thinking and receptivity to bullshit is particularly important when it comes to helping us understand why people can find meaning in meaningless statements online. Intuitive thinkers—those who are more likely to rely on their initial impressions when reasoning—rated meaningless statements as more profound. Reflective thinkers, who are more likely to reconsider their initial impressions after giving a subject analytic thought, saw through the bullshit.
Ah but there is the rub. Social media was made for quick intuitive reading. We all skim headlines much more than we read articles, and if the headline sounds like something we agree with, SHARE!
But headlines are misleading. Headlines are written to grab your attention, not to display the full truth of the story. Clinical studies with all sorts of details and caveats are turned into sound bites. That’s how so many people can share a story about chocolate making you thin, or how the Powerball jackpot could end poverty. They wanted to share it and show how in touch they were, without stopping to think about it critically.
Millions of people saw those stories, and more, shared by their family and friends, and went about their lives with this fresh “knowledge”, that isn’t.
Worse yet, when it comes to politics, religion, or even sports, we assume that everyone thinks like we do because we all share the same types of stories!
What is emerging is the worst kind of echo chamber, one where those inside are increasingly convinced that everyone shares their world view, that their ranks are growing when they aren’t. It’s like clockwork: an event happens and then your social media circle is shocked when a non-social media peer group public reacts to news in an unexpected way. They then mock the Other Side for being “out of touch” or “dumb.”
Fredrik deBoer, one of my favorite writers around, touched on this in his Essay “Getting Past the Coalition of the Cool.” He writes:[The Internet] encourages people to collapse any distinction between their work life, their social life, and their political life. “Hey, that person who tweets about the TV shows I like also dislikes injustice,” which over time becomes “I can identify an ally by the TV shows they like.” The fact that you can mine a Rihanna video for political content becomes, in that vague internety way, the sense that people who don’t see political content in Rihanna’s music aren’t on your side.
When someone communicates that they are not “on our side” our first reaction is to run away or dismiss them as stupid. To be sure, there are hateful, racist, people not worthy of the small amount of electricity it takes just one of your synapses to fire. I’m instead referencing those who actually believe in an opposing viewpoint of a complicated issue, and do so for genuine, considered reasons. Or at least, for reasons just as good as yours.
We tend to come across the occasional person who doesn’t agree with everything we say, and immediately they become the “other”, instead of being able to acknowledge that different people, from different backgrounds, and different day to day concerns from our own might, legitimately, come to different conclusions from their own, intelligent, perspective. Nope, they must just be brainwashed by “fill in the blank media outlet”.
But it’s dangerous, because the more we live in the echo chamber, the more likely we are to stay uninformed as opposed to truly being informed, and the easier it is for savvy politicians to take advantage of us. We can also fall prey to demonstrably bad medical or financial information, or fall victim to a variety of swindlers, hoaxes, and make decisions based on bad information. This is not good.
Let me go ahead and give you an example of how someone could simply not think the same way that “everyone” does. Like everyone else on the internet, I saw Star Wars during the holidays. Unlike most of them, I didn’t find it to be a very good movie. In fact, I found it to be pretty boring.
Not really, but still, if you haven’t seen it, consider this a spoiler alert, stop reading!
I found it to be nothing more than a retelling of Episode IV, with different characters. Nothing in the movie surprised me, and I suspect, nothing in the next two will either. Oh sure, the effects are amazing, and there are some fun lines, but nothing made me sit in that theater waiting to see what happens next. I knew what happened next, and I don’t find that to be a particularly entertaining experience.
There, now I’ve outed myself as one of those “others” that you like to pretend don’t exist. Mock me if you will, but at least acknowledge that I came to that opinion myself, and that it is a carefully considered one before you block me on Twitter. 😉
Also, don’t be like every other internet user. Go read those links, and really think about what is being said!