To continue with a theme I started yesterday on outrage fostered by social media, I found this relevant piece by Thomas Friedman: Social Media: Destroyer or Creator?
Friedman describes how that Facebook revolutions start out as pretty awesomely powerful things, then they self destruct. Hold on… I’m having a deja vu moment.
Many new communities – from atheists to religious, ghost hunters to skeptics – have flourished on the Internet as people of like minds were able to connect to each other and share their thoughts and interests. It was all great, for a while. The exciting sense of community eventually broke down into factions that became vehicles for the spread of misinformation and rumors. I hesitate to compare all these groups to each other since Friedmans’s piece is actually about a very serious issue – the Egyptian revolution in 2011 that toppled President Hosni Mubarak. Yet, the process of group formation, dynamics and destruction appears fundamentally similar. In the end, there was no consensus achieved and no progress made towards a sustainable working government.
The same can be seen with these hobbyist and interest communities. They fall apart and become hostile towards each other. The piece describes how we invest so much into the online discussions in that alternative society that it fails to meaningfully translate into real life. Social media will amplify polarization, eventually leading to a specific faction (in this example, the Muslim Brotherhood) that takes over the scene. In the skeptical community (and others, I hear), social justice advocates hijacked best laid plans, particular individuals’ reputations, and many peoples’ patience.
Wael Ghonim, who helped spur the initial surge in participation in Egypt’s revolution, noting the following problems that arose in his experience:
- People tended to quickly accept and propagate rumors that confirmed their own biases.
- Biases were further reinforced by the problem of the “echo chamber” problem where we shut out those we disagree with it.
- The brevity of social media caused mistaken assumptions and complexity and nuance was ignored. He observed how quickly discussions “descend into angry mobs. … It’s as if we forget that the people behind screens are actually real people and not just avatars.”
This was one of the points my last post. Half-assed outraged responses and lack of thoughtfulness.
The message I got from the Friedman piece is that all over the Internet we are failing to conduct civil, meaningful discussion about important topics. In some cases, we end up rolling backwards, fast. Such retrograde motion is hard to stop and will take resolve and considerable effort to gain back. How depressing! The only good thing I could salvage from this was that you learn from mistakes along the way. Unfortunately, there will always be those people in the next go-round who will pull the same shit to derail progress again. Maybe a prime objective should be to resist derailment from those who have insincere agendas. That will take some serious backbone all on its own, but if it happens everywhere to every group, more or less, it’s worth being forthright and recognizing it could occur. Being prepared for the hijacking, we know, is a good deterrent from it happening again.