Linked – Social Network Algorithms Are Distorting Reality By Boosting Conspiracy Theories

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“The problem is that social-web activity is notorious for an asymmetry of passion. On many issues, the most active social media voices are the conspiracist fringe. The majority of people know that vaccines don’t cause autism, and that 9/11 was not an inside job. They don’t dedicate hours to creating content or tweeting to reinforce the obvious. But passionate truthers and extremists produce copious amounts of content in their commitment to “wake up the sheeple.” Last month, for example, a study looked at the relative percentages of pro-vaccine vs. anti-vaccine content on Pinterest and Instagram; 75% of the immunization-related pinned content was opposed to vaccines. This was a dramatic shift from studies of social networks in the early 2000s, when the percentage of negative content was estimated at around 25%.

This asymmetry of passion, and the resulting proliferation of nonsense on social channels, is particularly strong where pseudoscience is concerned. Consider the Food Babe, an anti-GMO “food safety activist” who boasts 1 million Facebook fans and a committed #foodbabearmy on Twitter dedicated to harassing companies (such as the Girl Scouts) to get them to remove ingredients that are hard to pronounce. When refutations, corrections, or takedowns of her often misinformed agenda are published in the mainstream media, her followers dig in more, convinced that the pushback is because they’ve struck a nerve in Big Agriculture or Big Food, or because the reporter is “bought.””

Conspiracy theories and pseudoscience have become almost impossible to argue about. Those who want to believe in these things surround themselves online with other “true believers”. In turn, the group turns against anyone who questions their “truth” as being in the pocket of whoever it is they are targeting.

For example, if I say that there is absolutely no science behind the anti-vax movement, they will claim that I am simply uneducated and being fed by the media who is in on the conspiracy along with Big Pharma. How do you even argue with that? There’s no room for debate, you either believe the way I do, or it’s because someone got to you.

And let’s face it, our egos are stroked every time the group tells us that we know better than the rest of the world, that we are part of those who are “in the know”. It’s the same mentality that cults take advantage of.

Handing over control of our news to social networks who are more interested in keeping you on their site, and happy, means seeing more things that feed that ego. Until we reach the point where there is nothing that will convince us we are wrong, no matter how wrong we are.

That’s dangerous.


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