How Social Media Distorts the Truth About Everything We Know
Almost everything you think you know about other people’s opinions is probably wrong.
And one of the main culprits is social media.
We all suffer from what author Todd Rose calls “collective delusions” – social lies that lead individuals to accept what they think the majority believes, despite their private disagreement.
Collective illusions have been around almost as long as human beings, but today they have “been turbocharged globally – thanks, in part, to the wonders of platforms like Facebook and Twitter,” writes Rose, whose book “Collective Illusions: Conformity, Complicity, and the Science of Why We Make Bad Decisions” (Hachette) is now available.
One of the first documentations of these illusions came in 1932, when a Syracuse University researcher moved to Eaton, NY, a close-knit religious community near Utica.
The researcher set out to investigate what city dwellers thought of appropriate behavior, asking, “What do you think Most people in this community would they say to smoke, drink and play bridge? »
The answer: “Most people would say these are very sinful activities.”
The researcher, however, soon discovered that most townspeople enjoyed these activities privately.
The reason for the disconnect: A former church influencer named Ms. Salt who publicly and loudly voiced her Puritan views. The townspeople concluded – wrongly – that she was speaking for the majority.
Social media functions like a million digital Mrs. Salts, facilitating rapid shifts in “perceived consensus, allowing marginal actors to manufacture illusions by creating the impression of majorities that do not exist in reality,” Rose writes.
This phenomenon – especially on the political level – has created a “deep and disturbing feeling that something is wrong with our society”, writes the author. “It’s as if the values of our society changed almost overnight. We feel confused, frustrated, unhappy and distrustful of each other.
The problem, in part, lies in the way our brain comes to conclusions.
“Brains are energy pigs, and through evolution they’ve been engineered to take shortcuts,” Rose told the Post. “Your brain might expend more energy with better sampling, but a reliable shorthand is, ‘The thing I hear the most about and the people who speak up the most probably represents the consensus.’ ”
This feature becomes a huge liability in the age of social media because “it’s so easy to give the impression of consensus,” Rose continues. “Russia and China understand that and have spent a lot of time there.”
In the pre-technology era, fringe ideas struggled to gain traction. Not anymore.
A study found that bots impersonating people – which already make up 19% of online interactions – only needed to make up 5-10% of participants in a discussion before the opinion the machines were promoting became the prevailing opinion.
In 2013, Twitter shut down more than 6,000 bot accounts programmed to retweet content from Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro. Although bots made up just 0.5% of the leader’s followers, their removal caused his retweets to drop by 81%.
Additionally, economist Juan Morales later found that the removal of bots was correlated with increased criticism of the president. The false consensus created by the bots had effectively silenced dissenters.
Another big danger, says Rose, is that “the collective illusions of this generation become the private opinions of the next generation.”
An example: Rose’s think tank, Poplace, did a massive study on what makes for a successful life. The number one thing Americans thought other people cared about most was being famous. In reality, fame came last. But the collective illusion about the importance of fame is reinforced in advertising, entertainment and online.
UCLA studied how social media affected how middle school students internalized values.
“Until a few years ago, the dominant themes were about character — they wanted to be a good friend and honest,” Rose says. “A few years ago it became ‘I want to be a famous YouTube star’.”
It may sound gloomy, but there is hope. “As powerful as illusions are, they are also fragile,” he says.
One step to breaking them is simply acknowledging that they exist — something less than 3% of Americans do, according to the author.
“Social media is a carnival of fun mirrors — they will warp,” Rose says. “There is nothing we can do about it, but we are each monitoring whether this distortion changes the way we treat each other.”