Damaging Effects on Public Discourse

This is the eleventh post based on an important book by Roger McNamee titled: “Zucked: Waking up to the Facebook Catastrophe.” In the MIT Technology Review professor Zeynep Tufekci explained why the impact on internet platforms is so damaging and hard to fix. “The problem is that when we encounter opposing views in the age and context of social media, it’s not like reading them in a newspaper while sitting alone. It’s like hearing them from the opposing team while sitting with our fellow fans in a football stadium. Online, we’re connected with our communities and we seek approval from our like-minded peers. We bond with our team by yelling at the fans on the other one. In sociology terms, we strengthen our feeling of ‘in-group’ belonging by increasing our distance from and tension with the ‘out-group’—us versus them. Our cognitive universe isn’t an echo chamber, but our social one is. That is why the various projects for fact-checking claims in the news, while valuable, don’t convince people. Belonging is stronger than facts.” To this HM would add “beliefs are stronger than facts.” Belonging leads to believing what the group believes. As has been written in previous healthymemory blog posts, believing is a System One Process in Kahneman’s Two-process view of cognition. And System One processing is largely emotional. It shuts out System Two thinking and promotes stupidity.

Facebook’s scale presents unique threats for democracy. These threats are both internal and external. Although Zuck’s vision of connecting the world and bringing it together may be laudable in intent, the company’s execution has had much the opposite effect. Facebook needs to learn how to identify emotional contagion and contain it before there is significant harm. If it wants to be viewed as a socially responsible company, it may have to abandon its current policy of openness to all voices, no matter how damaging. Being socially responsible may also require the company to compromise its growth targets. In other words, being socially responsible will adversely affect the bottom line.

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