Apr 15 2013


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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