Have the Dangers of Social Media Been Overstated?

Fr0m CJR’s The Media Today by Mathew Ingram:

ON APRIL 11, The Atlantic published an essay by Jonathan Haidt titled “Why the Past 10 Years of American Life Have Been Uniquely Stupid.” In the piece, Haidt—a social psychologist at the New York University Stern School of Business and the co-author of a book called The Coddling of the American Mind—argued that social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube have constructed a modern-day tower of Babel. The societal chaos that these kinds of services have unleashed, Haidt wrote, have “dissolved the mortar of trust, belief in institutions, and shared stories that had held a large and diverse secular democracy together.” (The arguments made in the piece were similar to an earlier Atlantic essay, by Haidt and Tobias Rose-Stockwell, about the “dark psychology” of social networks, which, they argue, have created a world in which “networks of partisans co-create worldviews that can become more and more extreme, disinformation campaigns flourish [and] violent ideologies lure recruits.”)

Haidt’s essay was the latest in a long line of research papers and articles on the ills of social media, and pushes the idea that, through their recommendation and targeting algorithms, services such as Facebook and Twitter have fractured, polarized, and enraged Americans. Concepts such as the “filter bubble,” the“echo chamber,” and the idea that social networks can “radicalize” otherwise normal users—by turning them into right-wing conspiracy theorists, for instance—have become commonplace. “Something went terribly wrong, very suddenly,” when services such as Facebook and Twitter became widespread, Haidt argued in his most recent essay. “We are disoriented, unable to speak the same language or recognize the same truth. We are cut off from one another and from the past. The newly tweaked platforms were almost perfectly designed to bring out our most moralistic and least reflective selves. The volume of outrage was shocking.”

As familiar as some of Haidt’s arguments about social media were, his essay did introduce something relatively new to the field. After some criticism of his conclusions, and some of the research he relied on for his piece, Haidt and Chris Bail—a professor of sociology and public policy at Duke University, where he directs the Polarization Lab—made public a collaborative Google document they had created called “Social Media and Political Dysfunction: A Collaborative Review.” The idea behind it, Haidt and Bail explained in a preface, was to collect research that might help to shed light on whether social media is “a major contributor to the rise of political dysfunction seen in the USA and some other democracies.”

Taken as a whole, what Haidt and Bail’s document suggests is that there is a lot less scientific consensus on the positive or negative impacts of social media than many people might think. In a section of the document concerning the question of whether social media makes people more polarized, for example, eleven studies suggest the answer is yes, and fourteen studies either suggest it is no or were inconclusive. In a section about whether social media creates echo chambers, ten studies suggest the answer is yes, and twenty-five either suggest the answer is no or were inconclusive. One overview of research into the existence of echo chambers and filter bubbles on social media in Europe notes that “studies of news use on social media have failed to find evidence of echo chambers and/or filter bubbles [and] some studies even find evidence that it increases the likelihood of exposure to opposing views.”

As a New Yorker piece by Gideon Lewis-Kraus points out, Haidt and Bail’s document suggests that, when it comes to social media, “there’s a general sense that it’s bad for society—which may be right. But studies offer surprisingly few easy answers.” Haidt told the magazine he liked the idea of collecting research in a Google document even if it didn’t support his thesis, saying, “I decided that if I was going to be writing about this, I’d better be confident I’m right. I can’t just go off my feelings and my readings of the biased literature. We all suffer from confirmation bias.” Bail said that his conclusions about social media’s impact on society are somewhat different from Haidt’s. “Yes, the platforms play a role,”he told the New Yorker, “but we are greatly exaggerating what it’s possible for them to do, and we’re profoundly underestimating the human element.” For example, the idea of a political echo chamber “has been massively overstated,” he said. “Maybe it’s three to five per cent of people who are properly in an echo chamber.”

Some social researchers believe the same is true of the idea that algorithmic “rabbit holes” radicalize social-media users and turn them into conspiracy theorists. The New Yorker reported that Brendan Nyhan, a political scientist at Dartmouth, found in a new working paper that almost all extremist content is consumed by subscribers to the relevant channels—”a sign of actual demand rather than manipulation or preference falsification.” The most credible research in the field “is way out of line with the takes,”Nyhan told the magazine. For example, research into the role of social media in the spread of extremist content and misinformation, Nyhan said, “finds that the people consuming this content are small minorities who have extreme views already.” If nothing else, the research outlined in the Haidt/Bail document suggests that at least some fear-mongering theories about the evils of social media ought to be taken with a grain of salt.

Here’s more on social media and society:

  • It’s the data: Researchers note that any discussion of social media’s impact on society is constrained by a lack of available data from social-media services and platforms. “The lack of good data is a huge problem insofar as it lets people project their own fears into this area,” Nyhan told the New Yorker. Over the past several years, Facebook has repeatedly promised to provide researchers with data from its network, and even set up a highly-touted partnership called Social Science One to do so, but has failed so far to come up with much usable data. Nathaniel Persily, a law professor at Stanford who cofounded Social Science One and later quit in frustration, said he thinks proposed legislation called the Platform Accountability and Transparency Act may help.
  • It’s the media: One of the books cited by Haidt and Bail is Network Propaganda: Manipulation, Disinformation, and Radicalization in American Politics, written by Yochai Benkler, a professor at Harvard Law School, along with Robert Faris, a researcher at Harvard’s Shorenstein Center, and Hal Roberts, a fellow at the Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society.Haidt and Bail say the book “argues that the current problems of media and democracy are not the result of Russian interference, behavioral microtargeting and algorithms on social media, political clickbait, hackers, sockpuppets, or trolls, but of asymmetric media structures decades in the making.”
  • It’s television: Micah Sifry, co-founder of New York’s nonprofit Civic Hall project, argued in a response to Haidt’s piece in the Atlantic that his focus on social media as the source of society’s problems “doesn’t hold up.” For one thing, Sifry argues, Facebook and Twitter are not dominating everyone’s attention. “Of the 5.5 hours Americans spend on all forms of leisure per day in 2020, the average American spent 3 hours a day watching TV, compared to 36 minutes on their computers playing games and about 32 minutes socializing and communicating with others,” Sifry says, quoting the American Bureau of Labor Statistics. “Maybe, just maybe, America’s powerful institutions were rotten well before social media eliminated the gate-keepers that kept us in one mass audience consuming the same content, fed myths about our nation’s founding and destiny, and told lies about how it functioned at home and abroad.”
  • It’s evil: According to a Bloomberg report, “eight complaints filed in courthouses across the US over the last week allege that excessive exposure to platforms including Facebook and Instagram has led to attempted or actual suicides, eating disorders and sleeplessness, among other issues.” One of the lawsuits, Bloomberg writes, was filed by Naomi Charles, a 22-year-old woman who says she started using Meta platforms when she was a minor, and attributes a range of suffering, including a suicide attempt, to her relationship with the platform. Charles’ lawsuit, filed in Miami federal court, alleges that Meta “misrepresented the safety, utility, and non-addictive properties of their products.”

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