How social media clouds our thinking

Social media changes how we think. It shapes how we reason. And even the best and brightest can get pulled into the weak forms of reasoning that platforms like Twitter promote.

Take Jon Favreau. A boy wonder, Favreau became director of speechwriting in the Obama White House at the age of 27, and he wrote some of Obama’s most notable speeches. The president thought so highly of Favreau’s talent that Obama once called Favreau a “mind reader.” 

After Obama left office, Favreau co-founded “Pod Save America,” an extremely popular politics podcast that HBO is now turning into a TV show.  

But on May 27, 2018, Jon Favreau screwed up. It was at the height of the outcry over the Trump administration’s policy of separating illegal immigrant parents from their children. Reports of toddlers being held in prison-like facilities dotted news sites and social media. So it was no surprise when Favreau, who had written eloquently for Obama on immigration issues, tweeted a photo of two young children asleep in what looked like a dog kennel.

The accompanying text stated: “Look at these pictures. This is happening right now, and the only debate that matters is how we force our government to get these kids back to their families as fast as humanly possible.” Favreau then linked to a web page on the Arizona Central news site, so that people could see the remainder of the photos to which he was referring.

Favreau has more than a million followers on Twitter, and his post soon went viral—first on Twitter, then other social media sites, including Facebook.

There was just one problem: what Favreau had tweeted was not true. The photo, as becomes apparent after clicking on the link, was shot by an AP photographer in 2014, when his former boss, Barack Obama, was president. 

Favreau’s overlooked detail soon went viral itself, boosted exponentially by President Trump, who tweeted: “Democrats mistakenly tweet 2014 pictures from Obama’s term showing children from the Border in steel cages. They thought it was recent pictures in order to make us look bad, but backfires.” 

Favreau, to his credit, soon jumped on Twitter to admit his mistake, saying he had not checked the source closely enough. But the damage was already done. It did not matter that Favreau had made an honest, if careless, mistake, or that journalists who had visited holding facilities in 2018 reported similar conditions, or that current press photos hinted at the same. 

None of this mattered because a well-known liberal—Obama’s own “mind reader”—had shared “fake news.”

The question is, Why? How could someone as smart, accomplished and tech-savvy as Favreau commit such an error?

It turns out all of us are susceptible.

A recent study, conducted by computer scientists at Columbia University and the French National Institute, found that 59 percent of the links retweeted on Twitter are not clicked on. This means 6 in 10 people do not read the articles before sharing. At the very most, they check out the summary, if not just the headline. And, in turn, they help ratchet up the popularity of a post with each new share. In fact, most of the links, the researchers found, had originally been shared by regular Twitter users, not the news organizations, real of fake, themselves.

The culprit here is the lightning-fast nature of Twitter and other social-media sites, whose revenue is wholly dependent on advertising. The continual flow of information is their lifeblood; the more people use Twitter and Facebook, and stay glued to its pages, the higher revenues climb.

And the more we suffer.

Multiple studies show that, while social media, used wisely, can be a viable source of news and information, it can also be bad for our thinking. It subtly warps our reasoning. 

The easiest way to demonstrate how is to take note of the rewards our posts often elicit—the likes, the positive emojis, the dings, the comments, the GIFs, the confetti explosions. Every time we are rewarded in this way—and we can only reap these rewards by checking our pages regularly—something happens physically.

In a study conducted by researchers in the UCLA brain mapping center, an MRI was used to scan the brains of 32 teenagers navigating an Instagram-like app. The images showed that, with each like, the reward center of the brain became particularly active. Some have argued that this kind of reaction reflects a dopamine rush–dopamine being a chemical that sends signals between the brain’s nerve cell– telling us when to satisfy a need. If you are thirsty, for instance, you get a drink of water. So these social-media rewards, the argument goes, compel us to return for more.

Once locked into social media, it is difficult to escape. Let’s take, for example, body image. Studies show that adolescents and young adults, after viewing flattering photos of friends and celebrities on social media, tend to have negative feelings about their own physical attributes. 

One extreme example is something called “Snapchat dysmorphia,” which prompts people to seek plastic surgery either to correct what they consider physical flaws or look more, in real life, as they do in their best selfies. In a poll conducted by the American Academy of Facial Plastic and Reconstructive Surgeons in 2017, 55 percent of facial plastic surgeons reported seeing patients requesting these fixes, up from just 13 percent the year before.

Another aspect of the problem is packaging. Print newspapers, read by fewer and fewer people each year, draw clear boundaries between ads, news stories and op-ed pieces. Online, however, most website posts—at least those intended to go viral—look very similar, in terms of the visuals and text used, oftentimes to elicit a strong emotional reaction—anger, for instance.

A recent Stanford University study showed that 93 percent of college students did not know that a lobbyist website was one-sided, and that fewer than 20 percent of high-schoolers were aware that just one online photo does not prove something took place.  

These are not challenges we can overcome anytime soon. Even if Facebook, Twitter and other social media sites were to do everything in their power to prevent such behaviors, the sites are used by billions of people all over the world. So that job is impossible. And simply turning away from social media altogether is not realistic. Today, the internet is a conventional means of communication, and in business, especially, social media is an extremely valuable marketing too.

It is also worth noting that “fake news” is nothing new. What Americans otherwise term the “yellow,” or partisan, press has been around as long as the printing press, as has propaganda. What has changed is the lightning-quick speed with which these forms of “news” travel—something Gutenberg could never have imagined.

In an effort to gauge just how big a problem we are all facing, the Reboot Foundation will soon send out a survey, the first of its kind, in both the United States and France that will measure the effects Twitter, in particular, has on our thinking and our online behaviors. The results of that survey will then help our experts determine the steps that should be taken to remedy what many now fear is a social-media plague. 

In the meantime, I suggest taking baby steps. Yes, hindsight is 20/20, but in Jon Farveau’s case, the fix was at his fingertips—the link he provided in his original tweet. A quick click would have informed him that those photos were taken in 2014, not 2018. And more than likely, he would have not chosen, at that moment, to tweet. Perhaps he would have searched for a current photo or simply made a statement that could be read as opinion, not fact.

If Favreau had taken these simple steps, he probably would have avoided propagating fake news—and, in turn, adding a brick to the political wall that divides so many.

 

Helen Lee Bouygues is the president of the Reboot Foundation and author of a forthcoming book on critical thinking.

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