Why Your Social Media Groups are Making You Dumber

We all think we are pretty smart, don’t we? If you are reading this article and think you are of above-average intelligence, raise your hand. I promise you, nearly every person (often every person) will stick a hand in the air without hesitation. Some people will raise both hands, and that is a great way to tell who is not of above-average intelligence.

In any randomly selected group of human beings, we should expect a bell curve of brainpower ranging from window-licking imbecile to MODOK-level super-genius. Here’s a chart to help you visualize.

Half of the people in any population will be either sliding down the Slope of Smugness or climbing the Stairway of Stupid at any given time. A large portion of us are still hanging out at the Pinnacle of Mediocrity and high-fiving each other over all the folks still coming up the hill. That is how the concept of “average” works. It can get more complicated than that, but at the core, the concept is quite simple:

Half of us are not nearly so bright as the other half, and very few of us are as smart as we think we are.

Statistically speaking, you are probably not on the slope of smugness. Statistically speaking, very few of us are. Nevertheless, a great many of us live our lives firmly entrenched in the belief that we are smarter than most of the folks around us. What does this have to do with Facebook groups, I hear you ask? Very little at first. Stay with me.

Springes to Catch Woodcocks

Underneath all the things a social media platform does is a central concept. They need you to spend as much time on the platform as possible. They sell advertising, and for advertising to have value it must be observed. All social media sites are designed to keep your eyes on that screen for the maximum amount of time in order to maximize the value of the ads they sell. That’s it. That’s the whole thing. You don’t need to watch Netflix’s terrifying “The Social Dilemma” now. I just told you everything you need to know about social media.

Everything Facebook or Instagram shows you is an attempt to hold your attention for an extra few seconds or to keep you from logging off. They aren’t even creating the content that’s being used to hook you. They are simply showing you something someone else made (like this article for instance…).

Facebook (or Instagram, or Twitter…) knows what you like. They know what articles you click on and what pictures you stop scrolling to look at.  They will feed you those things and anything remotely like them in a never-ending effort to keep your eyes on the screen and the ads in front of you. And do you know what seems to work really well?

Groups of like-minded people who say things you already agree with! The algorithms figured out early on that when presented with content from like-minded groups, people hung out longer. If you “like” a communist improv comedy group centered in your city, you can bet your last BitCoin that Facebook is going to show you as many similar groups as it can. The more groups you “like” or join, the more accurately it can predict the content that keeps you clicking. By itself this is not a bad thing. Of course, we want to see the content we like and from people we agree with.

But what about groups you disagree with? What about all the content that does not align with your own feelings and biases? What happens to that stuff? Your social media narcotic of choice is certainly not going to show you that stuff. That stuff makes bad feelings of confusion and sadness, and we can’t sell poorly made merchandise from Asian sweatshops to people who are confused and sad. Once again, this is not the bad part. This is just good business sense at work. Where things get dark is how these content creators have benefitted from the social media business model.

Springe means “Trap” (Enter the Echo Chamber)

When you no longer see any content that challenges your worldview or beliefs, it gets very easy to forget that other worldviews and belief systems exist. Worse, when all the content you consume is heavily biased, you are not getting an accurate picture of the system you espouse and its opponents. You are in an echo chamber. A big space full of people who think and believe the way you do. Inside the comforting shell of shared ego, your only job is to repeat the things everyone already agrees upon ad nauseum. There is no meaningful discussion in an echo chamber. Just a fashion show where each member trots out their gaudiest and most festive version of the groupthink to stimulate the adulation of the hive mind. Every post, every “like,” every share, reinforces the system without challenging any of it. It is addictive, too. Just like a slot machine, you keep pulling the rhetorical handle hoping for that nice little squirt of dopamine in the form of a smiley emoji. Every time you see yet another person telling you that you are right and that you belong to a group of other right-minded people, the system strengthens itself. With every errant click the minds of those trapped inside become more and more resilient to actual progress.

If this was a Marvel Comics fan group, no harm would be done. It is an objective truth that Marvel is WAY better than DC, anyway, so what’s the big deal? Often, the echo chamber is social or political. This is less amusing. For fun, I took a snapshot of two of reddit.com’s politics pages.

The one on the left is Reddit’s r/Politics front page, just as it is presented to me. The subreddit is described as follows.

/r/Politics is for news and discussion about U.S. politics.”

The other is r/neutralpolitics, which is described thusly:

A heavily moderated community dedicated to evenhanded, empirical discussion of political issues. Based on facts and respectful discussion.”

Here is what it gives me, side-by-side comparison:

One of these is an echo chamber. You pick. 

Reddit is a perfect example of how invisible internet points generate echo chambers. Most subreddits are, by their very definitions, echo chambers. By introducing the concept of “upvotes” and “downvotes,” Reddit has added a competitive aspect to pedagoguery the likes of which the world has never seen before. It’s now quite literally a  game to see who can score the most points. 

Not all Bait is ClickBait (Confirmation Bias)

Confirmation bias is the most insidious of the logical pitfalls. It is typically easy to spot in others but nearly impossible to see in ourselves. Literally, it refers to our deep-seated tendency to give extra credence to ideas and information that reinforce conclusions we want to be true. It is why so many ineffective martial arts masters insist that their art is “too deadly” for modern MMA competition. Rather than test their system in a fairly objective environment, it is enough for them to note the rules and the safety measures and declare MMA “too limited” to truly express their prowess. Confirmation bias is why anti-vaxxers continually reference one bad study from a disgraced doctor that has been debunked literally hundreds of times.  

Look what happened to beloved actor James Woods. So eager was he to point out (what he believed was) an obvious attempt at media manipulation that he forgot to check whether or not there was any occurring.

It would not have taken much time or effort for Mr. Woods to dig deep enough into the picture to realize that a map showing the locations of American wildfires would exclude wildfires outside of America. But his confirmation bias was so strong it left no room for any doubt that the thing he had already decided was happening had happened. Climbing up the Stairway of Stupid is tough enough, James. Don’t make it harder than it needs to be.

Silly alt-right guys, amirite? Thank goodness that the progressive folks are immune to…

Oh crap. 

Remember when Amber Heard revealed how physically and emotionally abusive Johnny Depp was? Do you remember that these accusations were met with very little scrutiny and ended up costing Johnny the next “Pirates of the Caribbean” movie? The ad-bots and click-farmers went nuts because the story was topical, titillating, and oh-so-goddamn clickable. The subreddits were humming with activity.

Of course we all know now that she was the abuser and her accusations were yet another form of psychological torture heaped onto the physical abuse and gaslighting she was already doing. But confirmation bias drove all objective reason from the minds of those who wanted to believe the story. Vox wrote a scathing rebuke of those who doubted her claims. The Guardian compared her to Charlotte Bronte for her bravery and phoenix-like ascension from the depths of his brutality. Then there was this:

The picture above brazenly declares the author’s not-wrongness even as it acknowledges just how wrong she was. She is insisting that her harmful ignorance and confirmation bias is a good thing.

As James Woods and Vox have demonstrated, ad-driven media is guided by AI that does not care where you fall on the bell curve. It just wants your eyes on the screen as much as possible. No one at Twitter cares if you are smart or stupid. Stop scrolling and click stuff, revenue-monkey. Daddy needs more bananas.

 The algorithms have learned that confirmation bias gets you to click on content, and well-curated content that confirms what you already feel keeps your attention glued to the screen. The algorithm is not evil. It is entirely neutral on the topic of human progress. It will show you flat-earth conspiracy groups all day long if it means you will keep clicking that stupid “like” button.

Escape

Good job agreeing with me, me.

There is no easy way to say this. Confirmation bias is the bait, and an echo chamber is the trap. Once in, getting out is very hard.

The first step is to accept that you are a victim of your confirmation bias. You cannot stop it. You cannot even see it half the time. The only way to kill it is to get out of your echo chambers and challenge your own beliefs. A lot. It will hurt, because confirmation bias does not let us admit we are wrong without a fight. Outside of your echo chambers, you might find some very well-informed people who are quite certain of your wrongness. Most of us will argue from a place of ego when this happens. The fight stops being about what is true, but rather who is not wrong. It is an artifact of your ego and it is making you dumber.

No one wants to look foolish, so we fight against facts that reveal our foolishness. Unfortunately, this only compounds the foolishness. There is nothing more foolish than having to plug your ears and scream “I can’t hear you!” when the crushing fist of objective reality smashes your poorly constructed belief system in its stupid face. Just look at any flat-earther still lurching around on the internet. It is very hard to look cool when you are tumbling backwards down the Stairway of Stupid, bouncing your head off every step on the way down.  Ask Alex Jones about that. Maybe not him. He almost seems to like the humiliation at this point. If we want smarter people, then we need to resist the urge to defend our not-wrongness and work from a place of facts and reason.

I suggest the following exercise. Examine one of your social media circles and ask yourself:

“What would happen if I expressed an opinion that disagreed with the group?”

If the answer is:

“A spirited and well-reasoned discussion of the topic would ensue. One that included citable references and many ideas being exchanged in a manner that fosters continued examination of this topic toward the goal of improving society.”

Then you might be in a good place.

If the answer is:

“Immediate and virulent ad hominem and censure. Possible exclusion from the group or targeted harassment.”

LEAVE THAT GROUP. That is a bad place for your brain.

Social media could be the single most powerful tool for progress in our society. The ability to connect with and exchange ideas with the entire planet should be improving our social systems and outcomes. However, in its current state, the effect is very much the opposite. This is not the fault of social media. It is the fault of those of us who cannot bring ourselves to scrutinize the thoughts and beliefs that make us feel good. Social media does not cause this problem, but it sure as hell facilitates the behavior.

If we are going to make social media work for us, we have to learn to take some rhetorical hits with grace. Expose your beliefs to robust scrutiny and take your lumps when they come. If you really are as smart as you think you are, this should not be so rough. But be prepared to have your mind changed. It is supposed to change when presented with new information. Stop fighting it!

In short, the answer is what it has always been since the time of Socrates. Surround yourself with people who question you. Lose an argument without throwing a tantrum. Much like stepping into the ring or onto the mats, challenging yourself in an environment where victory is not certain is how you get better at whatever it is you are attempting. Each time your positions are contested your understanding improves. Every rhetorical slugfest you take in stride is another step toward the Slope of Smugness. The cycle of challenge, confrontation, and re-examination is what is important, not the stupid internet points!

Stop getting your ass kicked down the stairway of stupidity for once.