Apr 15 2013

Twitterpated

Social media has been getting a bad rap recently. Blogs, podcasts, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, and other social media outlets have certainly had a dramatic impact on how people communicate. They are powerful tools and many people have put them to good use.

There are some unintended consequences as well, and as a society we are still learning to adapt to this new factor in our lives. There are issues of privacy, the rules of social behavior, and the ethics of spreading dubious information online.

We discussed two related issues recently on the SGU. The first was about the recent paper, “Recursive fury: Conspiracist ideation in the blogosphere in response to research on conspiracist ideation,” by Lewandowsky. Essentially Lewandowsky wrote a paper about conspiracy theories around the denial of global warming. Part of the backlash against that paper by self-described global warming skeptics included further conspiracy theories about the paper. Lewandowsky could not resist the irony, hence his subsequent paper.

The controversy stems from the fact that Lewandowsky, in the follow up paper, named specific bloggers and speculated about their mental states in a psychology journal. The questions that arise from this are many: what rights to privacy does one surrender when they publish something online? Is it ethical to name specific people in a psychological journal, and if not, how does one give source references without naming their targets?

These are important issues with many ramifications once you start to think it through. Public figures are fair game for criticism and even ridicule. It’s the price you pay for being famous or engaging in public discourse. The law recognizes that private citizens are not fair game and deserve some level of protection.

Has social media, however, made everyone a public figure? At what point does posting online under your real name forfeit the expectation of privacy? Does this justify online posters using a pseudonym? What are the ethics of someone anonymously (under a pseudonym) using social media to attack the reputation of someone else who posts online under their real name?

The issue of privacy is made more important by the fact that social media tends to be a harsh and unforgiving environment. Social media has increased interaction without the usual social cues that tend to moderate our behavior.

In short, people feel free to be complete asses on the internet, especially when they are doing so anonymously.

This is certainly a boon to psychologists – you have millions of people interacting with diminished inhibitions. This is a flood of data about the human psyche, culture, belief systems, social interactions, and the spread of information. Suddenly we are all part of a vast pseudovoluntary psychological experiment.

The second item we discussed on the SGU was a recent study of pro and anti-vaccine messages on Twitter. The study found three things – negative but not positive vaccine messages on twitter were contagious, negative tweets spread faster that positive tweets, and (most disturbingly) high volumes of both negative and positive tweets provoked an increase in negative tweets.

Anti-vaccine information therefore has a profound advantage over pro-vaccine information on Twitter. This effect likely generalizes to other issues and other forms of social media. For whatever reason, we are more motivated to pass on negative information than positive information. This represents a massive and probably harmful bias in the way information spreads through social media.

In short, people are negative assholes on the internet.

Not surprisingly there are negative effects of this online culture. A thorough review of existing research is beyond the scope of this post, but let me summarize the preliminary findings that such research is starting to show: Engaging in social media can potentially harm self esteem, it can increase stress, and it can lead to social isolation with decreased physical contact with other people.  There is a correlation with negative health outcomes among teenagers. Who knows how much lost work productivity has been caused by spending time on social media. And of course, social media allows for the viral spread of rumors, scaremongering, and misinformation.

It’s not all bad, of course. Social media are a powerful tool, and its popularity speaks to this power. It is an effective way to engage in mass communication, and has largely democratized access to publishing. Social media are also a potentially powerful source of information, for example by tracking the spread of infectious diseases.

It is still an immature technology, however. As a culture we need to learn how to maximize its benefits while mitigating the negative aspects of social media. Social media has had, in my opinion, a profoundly positive and negative effect on the skeptical community, for example.

I feel we can definitely benefit from further research into the uses and effects of social media, in addition to experimentation with methods to mitigate its negative effects. Existing studies, for example, are mostly correlational, and it is therefore difficult to make firm cause and effect conclusions. Further research can help sort this out.

The question is – what will advance more quickly, our ability to handle this advancing technology, or the technology itself?

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22 responses so far

22 Responses to “Twitterpated”

  1. DavidCTon 15 Apr 2013 at 9:28 am

    “The question is – what will advance more quickly, our ability to handle this advancing technology, or the technology itself?”

    To answer that just look at Television. I remember the promise that that media was supposed to bring to education and the continuing lack of good content. With the advent of cable we have the ability to access wide ranging content. The need to fill this available space has News reporting to morph into just another form of entertainment. We have people like Dr. OZ who are so desperate to fill the available time with content compatible with market share that he has sacrificed content for entertainment value. We now have access to unlimited bovine scat in HD and surround sound.

    The Internet is fantastic. Information is available to a degree not dreamed of in the past and new ways to access it appear daily. Our ability to discriminate does not seem to have improved that much. Also the ability of the untalented and clueless to drag others down is just magnified. Technology is always improving. Human behavior – not so much.

  2. Ori Vandewalleon 15 Apr 2013 at 11:26 am

    If I may be allowed speculate wildly, I’d bet that negative information has the advantage over positive information in social media because we (internet users, Americans, humans–I’m not sure how far I should generalize my wild speculation) tend to distrust proclamations from authority. It’s not that we don’t submit to authority, but that we’d like to believe our opinions are our own and not the product of authority. So we spread messages that contradict what authorities tell us, because it makes us feel slightly less powerless.

  3. Murmuron 15 Apr 2013 at 11:58 am

    People always say humanity and human behaviour in particular are in decline. I would love to see some evidence of just how loving and caring everyone was 100 years ago… or 1000 years ago. The world must have been populated by saints back then!

    The obvious fallacy in that aside, I personally don’t think people are any worse than they were before the advent of the internet and I would add that aside from about 0.01% of the people I have met on the internet and in real life, that most people are actually good people just like you and me.

    That is my experience, as I said, I would love to see it quantified and for someone to actually prove that things were actually better when they were my age.

  4. Gojira74on 15 Apr 2013 at 12:20 pm

    “I personally don’t think people are any worse than they were before the advent of the internet and I would add that aside from about 0.01% of the people I have met on the internet and in real life, that most people are actually good people just like you and me.”

    The issue isn’t a change in overall attitudes or behavior, at least for me. The problem is that a jerk from Egypt (just a random place) now enters my sphere where 30 years ago I would never have known they existed. People weren’t necessarily any nicer before, but I now have front row access to all the idiots on the planet.

  5. Steven Novellaon 15 Apr 2013 at 12:49 pm

    There is no claim or indication that people have changed. That is not the issue.

    Rather, there are essentially two phenomena here:
    1 – greater exposure to people who are extreme, rude, fanatical, etc.
    2 – people generally act worse online because of the diminished social cues and closeness. Essentially, generally good people are more likely to act like jerks online.

    The latter point is well established in the psychological literature, not just a matter of opinion.

  6. SARAon 15 Apr 2013 at 1:02 pm

    I wonder if we aren’t evolutionarily predisposed toward negative information.

    Just as it benefits me to assume every rustle in the bush is a lion, it also benefits me to assume that the rumors are true that there is quicksand to the south, that there are cannibals to the north, or whatever.

    If the rumor is that there is a nice babbling brook to the north, well, that’s nice, but it’s not as focusing as the danger aspect of the negative information.

  7. BobbyGon 15 Apr 2013 at 1:16 pm

    “people generally act worse online because of the diminished social cues and closeness. Essentially, generally good people are more likely to act like jerks online.”
    __

    Define “jerk”?

  8. locutusbrgon 15 Apr 2013 at 1:20 pm

    Steve

    I also think you are missing a singular point. It is a human failing that is independent from social medial. TV-if it bleeds it leads. Print-Human interest stories always take the back page to war, disease illness.Even something innocuous like a sports team. Sports talk radio ratings declines when teams are dominant and there is only good news. Same when all news in negative. Good teams with bad boy players and ratings through the roof. Human’s find “everything is OK” stories less compelling. Not a problem with social media it is a problem with US.

    This just in “aspartame is perfectly safe”…. poor ratings. This just in “aspartame melting the faces off of people like Raiders of the lost ark”…. not true but the ratings…

  9. Steven Novellaon 15 Apr 2013 at 1:28 pm

    locutus – you are talking about one aspect of all this, sensationalism sells, and therefore negative and scary news trumps boring positive news. I don’t think I ever said that this phenomenon is unique to or caused by social media. Social media just spread them faster.

    What does appear to be worsened by social media is bad behavior – name calling, snarky remarks, general rudeness, etc. These things obviously all exist without social media. The factor seems to be social closeness. The more remote and anonymous people feel the more free they are to act badly.

    Another phenomenon that has been greatly worsened by social media is the loss of privacy. The traditional boundaries are no longer in place, and we are still sorting out the rules for these new frontiers.

  10. locutusbrgon 15 Apr 2013 at 2:00 pm

    I am commenting more towards the section of your article where you stated “The second item we discussed on the SGU was a recent study of pro and anti-vaccine messages on Twitter. The study found three things – negative but not positive vaccine messages on twitter were contagious, negative tweets spread faster that positive tweets, and (most disturbingly) high volumes of both negative and positive tweets provoked an increase in negative tweets.

    Anti-vaccine information therefore has a profound advantage over pro-vaccine information on Twitter. This effect likely generalizes to other issues and other forms of social media. For whatever reason, we are more motivated to pass on negative information than positive information. This represents a massive and probably harmful bias in the way information spreads through social media.”

    I know I am showing my age here but I am find myself being less and less offended by snarky internet interaction. I just seem to be walking away more. There is a constant drumbeat of don’t trust the internet. Are people responding more generally to the nonsense? Is there really a problem or is it “Just anecdotal”.
    You are constantly assailed by this type of assault. Worse you often given them a platform and a target to attack you. How about this as a little bit of confirmation bias? I am just saying I am not trying to drill down to core of what is really happening here. Basically if I stay away from the blogosphere I don’t see much negativity. Facebook is very congenial for me as well as twitter. I am not a public target admittedly.

  11. apahernon 15 Apr 2013 at 2:16 pm

    I’d just sort of echo the last comment by locutusbrg. The leap from the anti-vaccine/pro-vaccine survey to this comment –

    “For whatever reason, we are more motivated to pass on negative information than positive information.”

    – seems to lack serious rigor. (Let’s latch on to this and ignore the incredible viral spread of so many positive messages on the internet).

    While there are seriously vocal anti-vaccine activists, and the issue is not entirely the province of nutters, it’s still largely a fringe thing. It’s not as though there is major scientific debate, or even major debate at the population level, over the efficacy and safety of vaccines. So *of course* you’d expect the marginal message to spread more virally. If we were seeing comments on UFOs, I’d expect to see more retweets of sightings and theories than denials and pooh-poohs. To suggest, first, that this is about “negative” information is flawed. To suggest, second, that it represents an “advantage” for misinformation seems to be at least a bit of a stretch; rather, it’s more likely a vent effect.

  12. rocken1844on 15 Apr 2013 at 3:06 pm

    1) is there any study investigating the correlation with professional comedy-often leverages the offensive- with its influence in social media use
    2) Tom Paine author of that great revolutionary cry “Common Sense” did at first publish under a pseudonym

  13. Cow_Cookieon 15 Apr 2013 at 6:50 pm

    I wonder if it’s possible for the pro-vaccination side to reframe their tweets to take advantage of the knowledge that negative tweets spread faster that positive tweets. For example: Would a tweet like “Anti-vaxers blow it again” with a shortlink to a study spread faster than a tweet that says “Study says vaccination is safe” with a link to the same study.

    Of course, there are some ethical questions. Do we really want to take it negative?

    I don’t buy Ori Vandewalle’s theory that it’s a reaction against authority. Presumably, tweets are coming from people with a variety of statuses in the eyes of the readers — both high and low authority.

    I wonder if the anti-vaccination side isn’t simply more motivated. As Novella notes, the vast majority of people are “shruggies.” They’re not likely to retweet because for them it’s a non-issue. You see this in all manner of debates. Go to a City Council meeting discussing a controversial issue, and it’s not uncommon for the room to be dominated by people who oppose the question at hand. Those on the pro are much more likely to stay home because letting things happen in the background is the default action unless it’s something that somehow impacts them personally.

  14. ccbowerson 15 Apr 2013 at 7:00 pm

    “I know I am showing my age here but I am find myself being less and less offended by snarky internet interaction.”

    I agree. While there is certainly more negativity online for the reasons mentioned above, the impact of individual negative comments online seems less to me. Although the impact of physical closeness in behavior does make people less likely to be rude in person, that is because rudeness in person is often worse than written rudeness online (it would feel worse, and due to the physical closeness may result in direct physical intimidation or violence). Although perhaps the net effect is still more negativity

    Now , I’m sure that for some people under certain circumstances, online comments may severely impact their lives- particularly those comments coming from people within a person’s day to day social environment (i.e. not anonymous online commenters). I’m thinking of people still in school (children and adolescents), and anyone whose internet lives are a significant portion of their everyday lives. I am also convinced that the internet’s ability to concentrate trolls/jerks is significant.

    As problems arise, we will have to adjust, and just like every other new social environment, we will need to agree upon which behaviors are acceptable.

  15. tudzaon 15 Apr 2013 at 8:09 pm

    Recursive furry?

  16. elmer mccurdyon 15 Apr 2013 at 10:41 pm

    I feel that I’m expected to say something, but I don’t really have much beyond what I’ve said before, and I believe that statement is itself one I’ve made before.

    I think what’s discussed here is often sort of interesting, but mostly not all that important one way or another, and the people are unpleasant, so I leave. Hopefully I won’t be followed.

  17. ccbowerson 16 Apr 2013 at 12:10 am

    “I think what’s discussed here is often sort of interesting, but mostly not all that important one way or another, and the people are unpleasant, so I leave. Hopefully I won’t be followed.”

    This blog is pretty tame by internet standards, and I don’t find the people here unpleasant. I’m sorry that you do. With a user name like Elmer McCurdy, you are pretty well protected from being followed.

  18. elmer mccurdyon 16 Apr 2013 at 12:11 am

    Er, no I’m not.

  19. starikon 16 Apr 2013 at 1:29 am

    When the debate is over, only the nuts can be heard still debating.

  20. eiskrystalon 16 Apr 2013 at 4:30 am

    I’m well past my “everyone is wrong on the internet” phase. It was fun, but lots of work. I’ve dropped several blogs over time and I rarely replace them with others. For the average person, getting rid of an idiot on the internet is as simple as ignoring their message.

  21. Murmuron 16 Apr 2013 at 4:38 am

    “There is no claim or indication that people have changed. That is not the issue.

    Rather, there are essentially two phenomena here

    1 – greater exposure to people who are extreme, rude, fanatical, etc.
    2 – people generally act worse online because of the diminished social cues and closeness. Essentially, generally good people are more likely to act like jerks online.”

    Ok, I get that. Say 0.01% of people are at the extreme, interracting with thousands means we will bump into some of them, and I know from personal experience that people I am good friends with act like complete idiots online… hell, I am guilty of it myself I guess.

    I still reserve the right to rant if someone says that things were better in their day (Which Steve didn’t do).

  22. BillyJoe7on 16 Apr 2013 at 7:04 am

    I’m pretty sure elmer mccurdy is just like the rest of us.
    ….he doesn’t take himself seriously either. :)

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