If any technology has fallen from grace in the past few years, it is social media. Gone are the days in which Facebook and Twitter were praised for their ability to coordinate mass popular movements such as those which fueled the Arab Spring of 2011. Today’s views of social media are broadly hostile to its contributions to democracy, not least by how the deluge of fake news and political vitriol have poisoned reasoned debate. If you’ve ever debated online with a Trump supporter, or a Brexiteer, you probably know what I mean. But the left (particularly young progressives) has done no service to itself by adopting the same angry, intolerant rhetoric, perhaps more worryingly, even against its own kind.
However, not all social media is the same. Recently, I read a comment about how fake news is practically non-existent on LinkedIn, the professional networking site. This raises some interesting questions on what it is about Facebook that makes it so uniquely prone to be subverted by vitriol. However, LinkedIn is not free of its own original sin.
Facebook and our second life
The key point to consider about social interaction on Facebook is the low, in some cases no-existent, negative payoff of bad behavior. By bad behavior I will consider the three main ones that are prevalent on that site (in no particular order of severity): 1) fake news, 2) extremist opinions (mainly racism and misogyny), and 3) hostile discourse. None of these three are present in “real life” interaction, at least in civilized environments, to the degree that they are found in social media and there’s two main reasons for that. The first is payoff. There is a lot of discourse on social media whose content or tone would be met with a punch in the face in real life. If not a punch, at least some other form of visible disapproval that could cause embarrassment or a reputational hit, such as walking out on a dinner conversation, a formal complaint to superiors, etc. People on social media suffer very few consequences for the material that they post or share but in turn, gain considerably from the approval of like-minded individuals which are easier to come across in the global society that the internet creates. Facebook almost makes stupidity a rational choice. Continue reading