Some biologists and ecologists think social media poses a risk to humanity– to the extent that we need to act now, before further damage is done to ourselves and our institutions.
Seventeen researchers across the realms of biology and philosophy recently published a paper positing that the wide-ranging impacts of social media on human society should be treated as a “crisis discipline,” in which action is paramount before even more societal polarization takes place.
As we all know by now, social media has completely upended the way humans communicate — over an incredibly brief period of time relative to how we, and our communication skills, evolved.
We now routinely share information with others faster than we’ve ever been able to before — but social media, unlike all human communication up to now in history — is guided by algorithms that most of us don’t understand.
Many public figures from the academic sphere, and others, have voiced concerns regarding the effect this information overload affects our democracy, mental health, and human relationships.
However, biologists and ecologists have been absent from this conversation until recently.
A new paper published in the prestigious science journal The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) earlier this month, titled “Stewardship of global collective behavior,” sheds a new and disturbing light on just how social media is influencing our lives, as well as our thought processes and behaviors.
In the paper, seventeen researchers state that academics must treat any study on technology’s impact on human life as a “crisis discipline.”
This would be similar to the climate crisis, in which experts in a broad swath of fields pool their efforts to thwart climate change while not having every bit of information that may be able to be gleaned, in an effort to address immediate problems.
In essence the researchers argue that our current imperfect understanding of just how social media and other technology is impacting our thought processes and behaviors, to the point that technological progress and democracy itself may be at stake.
In spite of gigantic amounts of information now being accessible to nearly everyone on the planet, the paper points out that technology companies “fumbled their way through the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, unable to stem the ‘infodemic’ of misinformation” that has resulted in some people believing in wild theories about microchips being embedded in vaccines, and other such ludicrous ideas.
The paper’s authors say that if the current situation regarding social media and technology continues unchecked, we might have to deal with the unintended consequences this technology contributing to “election tampering, disease, violent extremism, famine, racism, and war.”
“There’s no reason why good information will rise to the top of any ecosystem we’ve designed”
The unprecedented collaboration of the scholars across this many disciplines gives credence to their theory that technology is irreparably damaging our culture.
Vox’s Recode interviewed Joe Bak-Coleman, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Washington’s Center for an Informed Public , the lead author of the scientific paper, as well as co-author Carl Bergstrom, a biology professor who specialized in infectious disease epidemiology at the UW.
Bergstrom had stated in a tweet that this paper had been one of the most important that he had ever published. His reasoning for this was that, instead of his usual research, which fills in the details of well-established research, this most recent paper announces that “Here’s a massive problem, and the way to conceptualize it, that is critically important for the future.
“It’s suggesting an alarm going off upstairs. It’s a call to arms. It’s saying, “Hey, we’ve got to solve this problem, and we don’t have a lot of time,” he declares.
“My sense is that social media in particular — as well as a broader range of internet technologies, including algorithmically-driven search and click-based advertising — have changed the way that people get information and form opinions about the world.”
Even more disturbingly, he adds “And they seem to have done so in a manner that makes people particularly vulnerable to the spread of misinformation and disinformation.”
Nowadays, just one paper can come out “suggesting that hydroxychloroquine might be a treatment for Covid,” Bergstrom states.
Misinformation can “explode at unprecedented velocity”
“And in a matter of days, you have world leaders promoting it, and people struggling to get (this medicine), and it being no longer available to people who need it for treatment of other conditions. Which is actually a serious health problem.
“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.”
Even more serious are the conspiracy theories that are rampant on the internet.
“You can create large communities of people that hold constellations of beliefs that are not grounded in reality, such as (the conspiracy theory) QAnon,” Bergstrom states.
This conspiracy theory was recently proven to have been a psychological operation created by Russia as a way to destabilize the United States. That theory spread like wildfire — as it was created to do — causing just the kind of mistrust against the political system that it had been intended to do.
Apropos the coronavirus that has upended societies all across the globe the past year, Bergstrom says “You can have ideas like anti-vaccination ideas spread in new ways. You can create polarization in new ways.”
The social media that nearly all of us use every day can create “an environment where misinformation seems to spread organically. And also (these communities can) be extremely vulnerable to targeted disinformation. We don’t even know the scope of that yet,” Bergstrom warns.
Joe Bak-Coleman, the lead author of the paper, explains that the question the researchers were trying to answer was, “’What can we infer about the course of society at scale, given what we know about complex systems?’
The paper states “Collective behavior… focuses on the study of individuals in the context of how they influence and are influenced by others.
Financial systems not immune to gigantic swings because of collective behavior
“The multiscale interactions and feedback that underlie collective behavior are hallmarks of “complex systems”—which include our brains, power grids, financial markets, and the natural world. When perturbed, complex systems tend to exhibit finite resilience followed by catastrophic, sudden, and often irreversible changes in functionality.”
Coleman explains “It’s kind of how we use mice models or flies to understand neuroscience, he states. “Part of this came back to animal societies — namely groups — to understand what they tell us about collective behavior in general, but also complex systems more broadly.
“One of the things about complex systems is they have a finite limit to perturbation. If you disturb them too much, they change. And they often tend to fail catastrophically, unexpectedly, without warning,” he notes.
“We see this in financial markets — all of a sudden, they crash out of nowhere,” he explains.
Bergstrom states that the hopes the paper will “highlight the magnitude of what’s happened and the urgency of fixing it. Hopefully, it’ll galvanize some kind of transdisciplinary collaborations.”
What the scholars are concerned about is the fact that our information “ecosystem” has developed to optimize something that is completely independent of issues that the paper’s authors believe are “extremely important, like being concerned about the veracity of information or the effect of information on human well-being, on democracy, on health, on the ecosystem, Bergstrom says.
“Those issues are just being left to sort themselves out, without a whole lot of thought or guidance around them. That puts it in this crisis discipline space.”
Their scientific paper is essentially saying something similar to the repeated calls for addressing climate change, he says — basically that we don’t have time to wait. “We need to start addressing these problems now,” he urges.
The revolution in technology and social media has been likened to the invention of the printing press, a completely revolutionary event that changed world history forever.
And much like that groundbreaking invention, Bergstrom says that we are now living through the turbulent times that result from such a technological breakthrough.
“The printing press came out and upended history. We’re still recovering from the capacity that the printing press gave to Martin Luther. The printing press radically changed the political landscape in Europe. And, you know, depending on whose histories you go by, you had decades if not centuries of war (after it was introduced), Bergstrom says.
Although society did eventually recover, there was serious damage incurred by the wars that raged over Europe for centuries.
“These major transitions in information technology often cause collateral damage. We tend to hope that they also bring about a tremendous amount of good as we move toward human knowledge and all of that. But even the fact that you’ve survived doesn’t mean that it’s not worth thinking about how to get through it smoothly,” Bergstrom posits.
More importantly, he adds that there is no certainty that there indeed is going to be light at the end of the tunnel as regards social media and technology and the havoc they are wreaking on human society. “I also don’t think it’s completely obvious that we are going to be fine on the other end,” he states.
“There’s no reason why good information will rise to the top of any ecosystem we’ve designed. So we’re very concerned about that.”
Initially many academics and others were optimistic that the no-holds-barred exchange of information, with no official “gatekeepers,” would be a boon to human society in a multitude of ways. However, there is little evidence for this as things stand now.
“I was enormously optimistic about the internet in the ’90s, Bergstrom states. “(I thought) this really was going to remove the gatekeepers and allow people who did not have financial, social, and political capital to get their stories out there.
“And it’s certainly possible for all that to be true and for the concerns that we express in our paper to also be correct,” he maintains.
Lead author of the paper Joe Bak-Coleman adds that “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 I hope that it’s a false statement to say we have to have those growing pains to have the benefits.”
Bergstrom adds that “We need to figure out how, to what degree, people have been exposed to misinformation, to what degree is that influencing subsequent online behavior. All of this information is held exclusively by the tech companies that are running these platforms.”
Joe Bak-Coleman states that “the speed with which social media, combined with a whole number of other things, has led to very widespread disinformation — (that) here in the United States (is) causing major political upheaval — is striking. How many more elections do you think we have before things get substantially worse?
“We need to figure out how to come together and talk about all that. But at the same time, we have to be taking actions,” he urges.
He dismisses those who say that the upheaval in society over the past year is unconnected to our technology and social media use, saying “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.”
Last year’s constant demonstrations, which led to riots in major American cities, led to a polarization of American society that appears to show no signs of abating.
Night after night, demonstrations that ended up in violent clashes — many times involving the torching of buildings, and sometimes even the pointing of lasers into policemen’s eyes, blinding some of them, as well as the deaths of some policemen — were abetted by a nonstop flood of information and images on social media.
Although the presidential elections themselves were held without violence, a demonstration on January 6th of this year, before the new President was inaugurated, culminated in several deaths of demonstrators and police as a pro-Trump crowd forced its way into the Capitol building. Surely the widespread vitriol from both the far-right and far-left — and played on an endless loop in our individually-algorithmed social media accounts — played into all these events.
Carl Bergstrom states “When I talk to people about social media, yes, there’s a lot of concern, there’s a lot of negativity, and then there’s bias by being a parent as well. But the focus is often on the individual-level effects.
“But there’s less talk about the entire large-scale structural changes that this is inducing. So what we’re saying is, we really want people to look at the large-scale structural changes that these technologies are driving in society.”
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