It is popular to claim that social media sites (SMSs), such as Twitter and Facebook, democratise knowledge. This is true in one sense – it places information within the easy reach of the population at large. Individuals certainly benefit. But what about society at large? Here the story is bleak. Far from bringing people into contact with ideas that might challenge their precepts, SMSs increase intellectual isolation. Walter Quattrociocchi, writing in Scientific American, summarises the mountain of data that has been painstakingly collated by himself and others; they analysed data from two million Facebook users in one study. People eschew views they find challenging and isolate their attention in online groups, which reinforces their pre-existing beliefs. It gets worse – the less educated a person, the more isolationist they tend to be. Such people hew to conspiracy theories, which grow like a snowball among online communities. Scientific analysis is shut out so that detailed analysis of data on topics such as climate change are less widely disseminated. Conspiracy theories proliferate, for example, saying that climate change is a hoax perpetuated to further academic careers and earnings of alternative energy suppliers. The very worst news is that campaigns aimed at debunking these myths actually reinforce belief in conspiracy theories; there is no antidote to the myths perpetuated down social media.
SMSs are here to stay, but as the author says, the Information Revolution is fostering an Age of Credulity not an Age of Enlightenment.
— Richard Lilford, CLAHRC WM Director
- Lilford RJ. The Second Machine Age. NIHR CLAHRC West Midlands. 5 May 2017.
- Quattrociocchi W. Why Social Media Became the Perfect Incubator for Hoaxes and Misinformation. Scientific American. April 2017.
- Del Vicario M, Bessi A, Zollo F, et al. The Spreading of Misinformation Online. Proc Natl Acad Sci USA. 2016; 113(3): 554-9.