Have you ever watched a WhatsApp group turn into a battlefield? Or gotten entangled in a never-ending fight on Facebook? Or perhaps you have an uncle who shares increasingly radical political news? Let’s talk about the problem of the (anti)social networks.
“People are entitled to have their own views, but not their own facts.”
This is what historian Yuval Noah Harari has said. According to him, humanity has always been better at inventing tools than using them wisely. And social networks are a good example. Without a doubt, they have represented a radical change in our lives, an incredible display of data science and engineering, and one of our first contacts with artificial intelligence.
They are an endless source of entertainment. There are almost five billion social media users with whom we can interact at any time. From any part of the world. For free. And so we are writing the largest and most detailed chronicle recorded in the history of humanity.
A chronicle that may not have a happy ending.
You see, there is no doubt that social networks are harming our individual mental health, and that of our society: We have a serious global problem of misinformation and polarization.
And this is going to be the topic of today’s episode: How are social networks… unraveling society?
Surely you have heard about the so-called “information bubbles”. When you go to Google, Facebook, or any digital newspaper, what you see is different from what I see.
This is not because someone is devising a master plan to dominate us all. We click on what we want to see, social media algorithms learn about what we like, and they simply feed it to us so that we keep on clicking.
This can create the “echo chamber” effect, whereby we only see content that confirms our point of view. And so it seems that many people think the same as us, and even very extreme opinions, when we see them often, end up seeming normal to us and we end up adopting them ourselves. As time goes by, bubbles of information form, each one favoring a certain belief, political view, religion, or specific social group.
And this is the explanation of how social networks end up polarizing society.
It turns out that, according to recent studies, this explanation may not be complete. As Kurzgesagt recently explained in this video, there is little evidence that social media isolates us in bubbles. It’s actually the opposite: On the Internet, we are exposed to very diverse opinions. Where we’re isolated in a bubble is… in the real world: with your colleagues, friends, and family.
So how do you explain polarization on social media? To understand an alternative theory, let’s travel back in time, long before the appearance of the internet.
Early humans needed to cooperate in groups to survive, but they also needed to compete with other groups. So, over hundreds of thousands of years, our brains developed mechanisms to strike a balance between hating each other and accepting our differences:
- On the one hand, we had to know how to distinguish between “the good ones” and “the bad ones.” Generally, people from our tribe were good, and people from other tribes were dangerous. But also, a person from our tribe who was too different, and who did not respect certain social norms, implied a potential risk, so pointing them out and punishing them publicly ensured the survival of the group.
- On the other hand, we also had to be able to accept small differences with people from our tribe: Otherwise, we would all end up socially isolated, which would put us in serious danger.
In other words, for millennia, we have been able to tolerate a certain degree of conflict and disagreement with the people close to us. And this has been so because there was a certain amount of social cohesion that kept us united as a group, despite our small differences.
As humanity has formed larger groups, cities and empires, we have been exposed to an increasing degree of diversity of opinions and customs. This has led us to kill each other in horrible wars, but it has also led us to progress as a complex and diverse society. Broadly speaking, there was still enough social cohesion to allow our brains to deal with that amount of discord.
But on social media, these brain mechanisms no longer work well. We continue to classify people as good and bad because there is not enough social cohesion to help us tolerate small differences.
Those whom we classify as “the bad guys” give us a feeling of moral outrage, leading us to assume that they have bad intentions, dangerous for our tribe. Thus we feel the need to point them out and punish them publicly. That’s why we leave them an angry face and a passive-aggressive comment. Or, in other words, we interact more on social media.
And by spending more time online, we are exposed to more ads, which gives social networks a greater economic benefit. In other words, it’s in the interest of social networks to enrage us, because this way they capture our attention, we stay connected for longer, and they make more profit.
As a result, extreme and inflammatory content, whether it’s based on real events or pure conspiracies, becomes popular. Finally, disinformation spreads, people become polarized… and dramas ensue in WhatsApp groups.
But unfortunately, the consequences go way beyond the battles in the family chat. The use of social networks can negatively affect mental health, in addition to bringing new dangers that we didn’t have to face before, such as cyberbullying or cancellation.
And all these problems are just the tip of the iceberg.
Social media is eroding our ability to accept each other despite our differences, which is essential to continue cooperating as a society. This erosion ends up weakening the quality of democracy, which is becoming a problem on a global scale.
Social networks vs. human beings
During the COVID-19 pandemic, we all experienced and suffered through the constant information and misinformation battles on social networks. Should we get vaccinated? What about wearing masks? And is confinement a good thing or a bad thing? And although it’s difficult to quantify, all the confusion generated by social networks has had an enormous cost on human lives.
But social networks have also caused, at least partially, extreme episodes of violence. For example, Facebook is accused of having fueled the Rohingya genocide in Burma. It’s not that Facebook deliberately orchestrated the attacks, but it did facilitate the spread of misinformation and the polarization of people, increasing hatred against a specific ethnic minority.
Another memorable episode in the history of social networks against humanity can be found (of course!) in the United States. There we have countless followers of Donald Trump who firmly believe that the results of the 2020 elections were rigged, despite a lack of evidence for this, which led a group of fanatics to invade the Capitol in January 2021. But that’s not all, the feeling of insecurity and division in American society is such that, according to a recent survey, almost half of the population believes there may be a civil war in the coming years.
And we also know that networks have greatly influenced the outcome of various presidential elections around the world, as well as Brexit.
In general, the data shows that in recent years the quality of democracy in the world has worsened. And although we can’t know to what extent this is a direct consequence of social networks, they have undoubtedly played an important role.
But I have some good news: There is no reason to think that this negative trend will continue for long. Historically we have already experienced other similar periods, in which the quality of democracy temporarily declined. Humanity managed to overcome all those episodes, and we can beat this one too.
So what can we do to improve the current situation?
How to solve the problem?
The problem of misinformation and polarization on social networks is tremendously complex. And seeing as we haven’t managed to fully understand it yet, solving it will be even more difficult.
One of the proposals in Kurzgesagt’s video is that the internet should go back to looking like it did before the appearance of social networks, with its bulletin boards, forums, and blogs, and without incentives to stay connected at all costs. That is, an internet fractured into small communities that share opinions and a certain social cohesion. Like in real life.
This solution may seem paradoxical: Could creating bubbles be good in the end? I guess it has good and bad aspects. But if it manages to reduce the polarization effect that social networks are having on us, the result will be positive.
After all, our brain is what it is, the result of millions of years of evolution on a little blue dot in the immensity of the Universe. And precisely for this reason, as individuals, we have to learn to think rationally with a brain that is not optimized for that.
What can you do?
The next time you’re on social media and someone shares a piece of content that frustrates you immensely, what will you do? You can give in to your tribal instincts, write a passive-aggressive comment, make an ironic little joke, or go on the counterattack by introducing another topic that, according to you, proves that your opinion is pure gold. But before you do any of that, stop and think for a moment: What exactly are you going to achieve?
- Most likely, you will end up locked in a pointless battle in which neither side will change their mind. In other words, you’ll just waste your time.
- Even if you manage to convince the other person that you’re right, it’s not going to grant you anything, except maybe a momentary ego boost. In other words, you won’t learn anything.
So I’m going to propose a better alternative: Be kind and try to understand the other person.
Instead of spitting out your opinion or trying to shut them down, you can respond by thanking the person for sharing their point of view and asking them a question. Not a rhetorical question, but an honest and kind question, to try to understand them. Something like: “Interesting, although that seems quite surprising to me. Where did you find that information? Thank you”. I know, no one talks like that on social media. But consider what you can achieve with this approach:
- The other person will not automatically classify you as one of the “bad guys.” So they are more likely to take your opinion into account. Even when they’re about to respond to you, they may discover that they were wrong and adjust their response accordingly.
- The other person’s response may help you to understand a different perspective. It may even lead you to realize that you were wrong this time. In other words, you will learn something, which is much more useful than a short-lived ego boost.
When you respond with respect instead of with hate, the other person also usually changes their tone and responds in the same way. And sometimes, the person who wrote the first comment (if it wasn’t a bot) was just looking for a fight, and you didn’t give them what they were looking for, so the fight was over before it got started. This is also a good result since you save yourself some time and plenty of frustration.
Also, you don’t need to have an opinion on every topic. It is perfectly valid not to have an opinion on the conflict between Israel and Palestine, the independence of Catalonia, or the rights of the LGBT community. So if someone attacks you regarding any of these topics, it’s okay to respond, “I’m sorry, I don’t know enough about it.” In fact, this is the most sincere and also the most likely answer you can give. After all, reality is very complex, and your vision on any topic is almost certainly incomplete.
Finally, the majority of users on networks don’t interact with the content in a visible way. When a bunch of haters attack you on social media, it can feel like the whole world is against you. But it’s not true. The angrier a person is, the more likely they are to leave a comment. But for every person who leaves a comment, there are many more who only read and do not participate. So, by having civil conversations online, not only do you learn, but you help many other observers learn too.
To paraphrase Yuval Noah Harari again, humanity is betting its future against social networks. And for now, we are losing the bet.
Exposing ourselves to a wide variety of different opinions, as we do on social media, can be enriching. However, far too often, it ends up leading to hatred and polarization. So perhaps a certain level of informational isolation can benefit us globally.
But, as long as (anti)social networks stay as they are, there is something we can all do on an individual level: Accept that we have an incomplete vision of reality and try to understand, politely and rationally, other people’s opinions.
In short, and although it may sound naive: Be a good person. You will come out ahead.
If you want, you can practice this strategy right here and now: I invite you to leave me a comment. Tell me if there’s anything I’ve said that you disagree with. And subscribe if you want to see more videos about science, about the universe, and about how to try to improve the world a little. If you do, I will have the pleasure of seeing you again in the next episode of AltruPhysics.