Social media has grown into a monster that threatens humanity, suggests new paper

Could we have handled the pandemic better if there were no social media? While that’s where most of us head for accurate information, it’s also where we find the exact opposite. As for Covid-19, the misinformation and conspiracy theories on social media caused millions of deaths, with a threat of more to come. 

An intriguing new study suggests that communication technology combined with population growth has created a monster that threatens our civilization. The communication network is more extensive than we could have ever imagined, and so far, it’s somewhat uncontrollable. 

The authors explain that averting catastrophes requires an effective collective response: it could be anything from medium-term problems like corona virus to long-term issues such as climate change and food security. However, with unpredictable social dynamics affected by the misinformation scene, a unified response is becoming increasingly difficult. 

“In addition to existential ecological and climatic threats, human social dynamics present other challenges to individual and collective wellbeing, such as vaccine refusal, election tampering, disease, violent extremism, famine, racism, and war,” scientists warn. 

Two of the 17 study authors spoke with Recode to break down their findings. Joe Bak-Coleman, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Washington Center for an Informed Public, and Carl Bergstrom, a biology professor at the University of Washington, explained that the impact of technology on humanity should be a “crisis discipline”. We’ve selected some of the most important points they’ve made. 

Social media and health threats

All it takes is one poorly researched paper that looks remotely trustworthy, and you’ll have Donald Trump broadcasting it all over his Twitter. Well, that is, if the social network didn’t suspend his account. When he hinted that drinking bleach could help kill the Covid-19 virus, some people followed. And in general, many more have died simply because of listening to hoaxes. 

“So you can have these bits of misinformation that explode at unprecedented velocity in ways that they wouldn’t have prior to this information ecosystem. [Now], you can create large communities of people that hold constellations of beliefs that are not grounded in reality, such as [the conspiracy theory] QAnon. You can have ideas like anti-vaccination ideas spread in new ways. You can create polarization in new ways. And [you can] create an information environment where misinformation seems to spread organically,” Carl Bergstrom explains. 

The need for a transdisciplinary solution

The study authors point out that the threat is so immense that even if we don’t quite understand its implications and don’t have all the answers, we need to act. There’s no time to wait if this new information ecosystem affects human wellbeing, democracy, health, and our planet. 

“It’s like climate science where you don’t have time to sit down and work out everything definitively. This paper is essentially saying something quite similar — that we don’t have time to wait. We need to start addressing these problems now,” says Carl Bergstrom. 

The pluses and minuses of social media information

Yes, misinformation spreads like wildfire on social media, but it also democratizes information. On the one hand, we get to organize human rights protests and make a difference effectively; on another, extremists could decide to storm the Capitol. Is it possible to only enjoy the positives without the dark side? Joe Bak-Coleman hopes so. 

“Democratizing information has had profound effects, especially for marginalized, underrepresented communities. It gives them the ability to rally online, have a platform, and have a voice. And that is fantastic. At the same time, we have things like genocide of Rohingya Muslims and an insurrection at the Capitol happening as well. And I hope that it’s a false statement to say we have to have those growing pains to have the benefits,”

It’s not just a reflection of real-life chaos

Recode’s Shirin Ghaffary asked the devil advocate question: what if social media only mirrors the moods already present in society. But Bergstrom says that’s the same excuse Big Tobacco used, pretending that higher lung cancer rates can’t be reliably linked to cigarettes. 

“And now we’re hearing the same thing about misinformation: ‘Yeah, sure, there’s a lot of misinformation online, but it doesn’t change anyone’s behavior.’ But then all of a sudden you got a guy in a loincloth with buffalo horns running around the Capitol building.”

If in doubt about the threats of misinformation on social media, we’ll leave you with this thought.

A substantial amount of people believe that cannibalistic pedophiles run a child sex trafficking ring and Trump is their savior. They were naive enough to think that a riot in the Capitol would be without consequences. They even threw tantrums at airports because they were put on no-fly lists.

Yes, the whole “crisis discipline” suggestion sounds about right, all things considered. 

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