What Makes Social Media Ugly

Why you should stop worrying about it and what you can do to ensure it does not stay ugly

Lately, many people that I have interacted with seem to be worried about the negative consequences of social media. Many are quick to jump to the conclusion that social media is going to usher us into a dystopian future. Well, that is not likely to happen because we can still do something about it.

Social media is, unarguably, very powerful. As Naval said on the Joe Rogan Podcast (I am paraphrasing a bit here):

The people writing the algorithms for social media and content curation platforms like Twitter, FB, Google etc are the most powerful people on the planet because they are deciding what content is put on our screens thereby shaping our thoughts, opinions and interests.

Social media is shaping our collective minds. It is telling us what we should pay attention to, what we should get angry about, what we should not tolerate and so on. Now, this in itself is not dangerous. However, combine it with the people who are consuming all this content without applying discretion, that is when things take an ugly turn. More often than not, people tend to get carried away by what they see on social media.

Discretion — the right or ability to make a judgment or decision

Most of the ‘trending’ topics are ‘trending’ because of the nature of their content. They appeal to our emotions — rage, fury, sadness, amusement, frustration, hurt, loss etc. We were quick to be outraged by that poor elephant in Kerala that was killed. Why? Because we are not used to taking a pause and pondering over it. Instead, we pause and feel it and act upon that feeling. We shut off our reasoning ability and we decide to join the bandwagon. This is why fact-based news/information that appeal to the human intellect rarely trend.

Social media has become a tool for virtue signalling. When we share outrage over an issue, we are demonstrating the correctness of our moral compass. Well, if we do not express our moral outrage against animal cruelty, what kind of people are we? So, we are forced to fall into the trap and share our outrage over the poor elephant that everyone thought was intentionally fed firecracker-stuffed-fruit in order to kill it. We do not take a second to confirm the veracity or even the completeness of the information available on that incident. If there is a collective outrage, I too should be outraged for, I too am a good person who has zero tolerance for animal cruelty.

I am simply going to quote from an excellent article on this topic by Taylor Pearson:

Most people suffer from overconfidence bias. They tend to think that they know more than they really do.

“Reality has a surprising amount of detail” — Taylor Pearson

There is scientific evidence for this. This study showed that people think they understand things better than the actually do:

Most people feel they understand the world with far greater detail, coherence, and depth than they really do… [They] wrongly attribute far too much fidelity and detail to their mental representations because the sparse renderings do have some efficacy and do provide a rush of insight.

Social media is easy. In just a few keystrokes, you can share information irrespective of how correct it is. Combine that with overconfidence bias and you have a lot of misinformation floating around.

Confirmation bias adds fuel to this already raging fire. We can effortlessly find thousands of like-minded people on the internet. No matter how flawed our thoughts are, no matter how biased our views are, we can find validation on the internet. Is it any surprise that groups like anti-vaxxers and flat-earthers exist? No matter how unscientific, radical, extremist, bigoted or racist our views are, we can find our cohort.

Humans are inherently flawed. Even the most well intention-ed authors of digital content are victims of these biases. People think they know all about something and they tweet it or write an article about it (this includes the author of this article) but are they giving you the full picture or are they being selective about the information they are sharing? What are their sources? Are those sources unbiased and fact-based? If not, what are their biases? Is there any vested interest responsible for the spread of this news? Consumers of digital content rarely ask themselves all these questions.

Social media’s negative effects on humans are undoubtedly worrying. There are 2 entities to be worried about here — each one of us as an individual and humanity as a whole.

Humanity

The best way to go about this would be to turn back in time and see what we have been through. That gives us a pretty reliable picture of our resilience as a species.

We have been through 2 world wars, Hitler, Genghis Khan, Spanish flu, numerous economic depressions, natural calamities, pandemics, famines, oppression and violence (that was much worse than what we are seeing today). If we as a species could endure and overcome those, we will surely find ways to overcome this as well.

So, don’t worry about humanity.

An individual

To ensure that you as an individual do not get negatively impacted by social media, you should learn to apply your mind. Few pointers below.

You should engage with, not merely consume what you see on the internet. Ask questions, be doubtful about the source, try to gauge the veracity of information presented to you, understand the biases of the author and only then decide to act. Consciously and relentlessly avoid knee-jerk reactions. Sure, your judgment might be wrong a couple of times. That is okay.

I use this excellent graph from Wait but Why to remind myself how little I know about things that I come across on the internet:

If all of us put reason ahead of feelings, social media will be a much better place. I am not saying apply reason instead of feelings, I am simply saying put reason ahead of feelings.

One could argue that discretion is a privilege that only the educated enjoy and I agree. Despite being “educated”, many still fail horribly at applying discretion. Then how can we expect this from the uneducated? For this, we need a systemic level change — better education system and better access to good education.

If each one of us keep the above in mind and work towards them, we do not have to worry about our individual selves too. And if enough of us do it, social media will not be such an ugly place anymore.

Let’s get one thing straight, social media is not the primary root cause of these problems. Social media has merely democratized information and perspectives. It is an easily accessible medium for us to share and consume thoughts. It has a lot of upsides as well.

So, what is the primary root cause? It is us humans. Humans are already flawed. Social media merely amplifies these inherent flaws.

P(A|B) = [P(A)*P(B|A)]/P(B), all the rest is commentary — Scott Alexander

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