6 Jul 2014

Internet and Information : Is Social Media Making Us Dumb?

One of the fundamental tenets of human life is to constantly evolve – to tirelessly and purposefully push the boundaries of knowledge. This means challenging your beliefs and attitude towards people and situations by thinking more critically than you did previously and gathering more facts than you cared about earlier.

Ask anyone whether they believe this is the right approach to live by, and the response will be an emphatic yes!
This course of evolution, however, often needs to be balanced with a person’s desire to feel smart. Impression management theory says that we feel a deep urge to always remain on the right side of intellectual divide. We despise being corrected and so love ‘safeguarding’ what we believe is true.

It is this conflict that forces us to clutch on to our convictions – even in the face of contradicting evidences. A medical research has shown through experiments that blood flow in the highest part of cortex in our brain reduces substantially when we are presented with an opinion or fact that contradicts with our own. This part of the brain does our thinking for us. So, in other words, our brain literally starts to shut down when we are exposed to information that makes us feel ‘incorrect’ or ‘insufficient’. Ever tried listening to the arguments of a politician you hate? Ever tried listening to your parents when they tried correcting you on certain actions you believed were right? We quickly start to feel low on energy and high on anxiety. That’s our Cortex which is troubled by the Cognitive speed breaker.

Carl Sagan, an Adroit on human psychology, has warned against this seemingly trivial but spectacular limitation of our evolutionary curve.  He puts it crisply by saying that “Try not to get overly attached to a hypothesis just because it’s yours.” This is a quote from his much more holistic critique of human frailties titled ‘Baloney Detection Kit’.

This trait is to so permanent and effective in its manifestation that it has been given a term in the circles of evolutionary psychology – The Backfire Effect. Backfire effect is when you try to defend your opinions and beliefs, once formed, from the way of external harm. Once you truly ‘own’ an opinion and adopt it as your own, you like to defend it from the ‘aggressors’ who have a ‘contradicting’ view. You truly stick to these beliefs instead of questioning them or their veracity. And every time someone tries to dilute your allegiance to a certain view – it ‘backfires’ and makes your conviction for the belief even stronger. Over a time you start to believe that these opinions are axiomatic truths and anyone who contradicts with your view has an unhealthy design against you!

This effect is deftly used by the people in position of influence to serve various purposes. The purpose can be a mass scale data research, feeding into the web of misinformation, and fueling conspiracy theories. We leap up to the pieces of information which reinforce our own view, make them our own and try to protect them from any cognitive dissonance. Now any contradicting evidence is shrugged off as a conspiracy and lack of supporting evidence is attributed to elaborate cover-up plans.

The best demonstration of this fact is found in comment section of internet forums. The vileness of language and force of conviction is present not because we are sure we are correct, but because we are sure that ‘others’ have an evil design.

This brings us to our topic of interest – Social Media and the way it influences us.

Advent of social media came with a great promise, a promise of converged democracy. Here the access to information and facts were a great equalizer. Days of state-driven propagandas and absurdly inappropriate cover-ups were supposed to be a thing of past. Citizens gradually started evolving to ‘Netizens’. People could participate in the dialogue of democracy more directly than ever, and outrage caused by government’s apathy and incompetence suddenly found an outlet – often echoing through the conscience of the nations. Recent episodes of social media powered uprising in Egypt and anti-establishment assertion of Indians through Anna movement are proud recollections of this amazing power that is social media.

But then something, somewhere went wrong, and not many of us noticed it.

Search results and feeds from your friends and peers are no longer neutral. They are ‘customized’ according to your preferences and other variables. In a recent TED talk, one of the most revealing piece of information about internet style stereotyping was revealed by Eli Periser, founder of the public policy advocacy group, MoveOn.org. He says that Google checks as many as fifty seven (yes, that’s fifty seven!) data points before fetching your ‘customized’ search results to you. These data points include your age, gender, location, sexual orientation, profession, and many more such personal pieces of information. So a search result for the same word may throw up entirely different information based on who you are and what you like. Then we had Facebook coming ahead and saying that they manipulated feeds of nearly seven lacs users worldwide to ‘observe’ their psychological response. Some of these users included minors as well.

What this means is that we, as information workers, are increasingly being conditioned to access information that is likely to be agreeable to our views and beliefs. So if you hate a certain political party you are less likely to see any update related to it in your searches and feeds. For example, we all live in a delirium that the globally known diseases are on a down swing. But that is not to be the case as this report could bring out much more factually and much less pleasantly. So then why do all of us like to believe that all such diseases are on terminal downswing? Could it be that we only get information which we would ‘like’ to see and consume, filtering out anything that may reduce blood flow to highest part of our Cortex?

We appear to have come full circle in terms of fairness of information.

Algorithms decide for us what we should see. And our biases decide for us how we react to what we see. So now there is information being shared, but also propagandas being peddled. There is user created content, but also software managed information. And it is becoming increasingly difficult to say which is which as we enter an age of ultra-information and cheap communication technology, where every biased user with an internet device is a virtual stealth bomb - clicking with every ‘like’, and detonating with exposure to factual inconvenience.

Image Courtesy : Wikipedia

Does this mean we are being made ever more ignorant of information and views that runs tangential to our belief system? Are our chances of changing and challenging our worldview getting astronomically low with the information bubble we have learnt to live in? Are we less likely to take in stride the information or opinion which may open up our intellect and insight?

We don’t yet know the answer to these question. But one fact we do know – the fact that internet might NOT be the best place to look for these answers!

What is your view for internet online privacy?

How much ethical is internet pseudo-snooping?
How we can protect our personal information being leaked or misused by the internet giants?

(Written by Manish Jha, an Alumnus of IIIT Hyderabad and currently working with Microsoft as Program Manager. He is also associated with a social initiative 'Joy of Reading')



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