back to article Cross-discipline boffin dream team issues social media warning: FIX IT NOW!

A group of 17 researchers from a wide cross-section of different disciplines have come together to contribute to a paper suggesting social media might be a risk to humanity's continued existence as we know it. The paper – which reads less like a study of a particular subject and more like the family of an addict planning an …

  1. First Light Silver badge

    We're doomed!

    My problem with social media is the infantilization of dialogue and intrapersonal conduct. Immature adolescent behaviour has become normal adult conversation. See eg Chris Whitty getting harassed. Somehow social media has permanently extended adolescence, at least for many more people than would have been the case without it. People need to get back to growing up, dealing humanely with those they disagree with, and respecting the wisdom and expertise of others.

    1. AMBxx Silver badge
      Megaphone

      A good start would be if MSM just refused to report on anything on social media. If Z-list celeb wants to make an announcement, let them use an old fashioned press release. Slowing down the dialogue and ignoring the nutters will soon help mitigate the problems.

      1. Charles 9 Silver badge

        Trouble is, what if paying attention to them is the ONLY way to stay in business? If the eyes don't turn, they don't get paid, don't get to pay the bills, and go under and all that.

    2. Doctor Syntax Silver badge

      Not so much extending adolescence but in many cases causing regression in those well past it.

    3. Anonymous Coward
      Facepalm

      It's not the trolls that are the problem

      Yes, social media allows easy immature behavior. Yes if allows tribes to exist in their own bobble. But these issues have been around for millennia.

      The core issue is that it encourages a TLDR attitude.People increasingly want news, opinion, and even conversations in Twitter length segments or, even better, TikTok length videos. This didn't start with social media, the printing press gave us broadsheets, but while printing encouraged literacy, social media encourages illiteracy. Many people won't take the time to read an entire 'long read' post, much less a newspaper or magazine article online, and forget books.

      A society where news and opinion are short video clips with emoji responses is, indeed, doomed.

  2. IGotOut Silver badge

    Meh.

    We've survived the misinformation from religion for a few thousand years, I'm sure we'll be fine..

    1. Denarius Silver badge

      Re: Meh.

      yeah, but now the religions are mere materialist. The 20th century showed those religions to be far more deadly than most of the transcendent ones.

  3. Chris G Silver badge

    "Stewardship of global collective behaviour"

    The title of their paper tells you everything you need to know about the authors.

    A bunch of academics who think they know better than the masses and how the masses should be steered.

    If they really want to improve society, they may want to consider putting their weight behind the genuine improvement of educational standards, teach critical thinking and always asking questions rather than accepting everything one reads blindly on trust.

    Of course good citizens shouldn't question too much though, should they?

    1. First Light Silver badge

      Academics are already teaching critical thinking skills. Alot of those skills come through humanities courses but no one wants to study humanities any more because they are all studying computer science or data analytics to get IT jobs.

      There are many great ideas about education: graduates of UCL's Institute of Education are full of them. But policymakers don't listen to such people. The UK has had abysmal Education Secretaries for some years but that's not the fault of academics.

      1. elsergiovolador Silver badge

        > Academics are already teaching critical thinking skills

        That depends. Academics are extremely poorly paid. This means some accept money on the side from various regimes and preach their agendas mixed with scheduled programme.

        That's why you see an army of students that would feel like at home in China and rising support of certain fractions in major parties.

        It is cheaper to destroy a country by modifying behaviour and beliefs, but it takes a long time.

        1. quxinot

          >That depends. Academics are extremely poorly paid. This means some accept money on the side from various regimes and preach their agendas mixed with scheduled programme.

          I was going to take a much more dystopian view and say that academics are people, and as such, Sturgeon's law can kinda apply. Most of them are not capable of teaching a concept that they're unable to demonstrate.

          It seems that a large percentage of the population never learned the mantra of 'question authority'--in all guises, from church to government to schooling. And no, this isn't picking specifically on the young in any way. There often seems to be a push that it's the younger generation that lacks these skills, and it simply isn't so. It may be that the youth are more likely to be visible, but folks lacking in critical thinking skills are visible at all ages in various forms--for example, consider older folks that you've worked with (and if your bosses have been excellent, then look towards the accounting department!), or elected officials, or even those who were attempting to get elected and failed in spectacular fashion.

      2. Mike 137 Silver badge

        "Academics are already teaching critical thinking skills"

        That's as maybe, but examination of the history of popular education shows that the teaching of critical thinking skills hasn't ever filtered through to actual educational practice for the majority of the population.

        Malcolm Mercer's Schooling the poorer child [Sheffield Academic Press 1996] demonstrates a pretty consistent rote learning approach from the mid 16th century to the start of the 20th, and in my experience (including as a teacher) it hasn't significantly changed since then.

        There's a huge gap between leading edge theory and common practice.

        1. Michael Wojcik Silver badge

          Re: "Academics are already teaching critical thinking skills"

          To a large extent, at least in higher education in the US, it depends on the field. Some fields do extensive pedagogical research and development and aggressively promote new techniques. Others are firmly stuck in the mud, and the rest somewhere in between.

          And schools and departments vary widly on how friendly they are to pedagogical progress. Sometimes reactionary pedagogies are essentially enforced by department bylaws (in the form of constrictive requirements for courses and syllibi), and sometimes there's pressure from colleagues and administrators to retain unhelpful pedagogical practices.

          But there certainly are pedagogical movements which emphasize critical thinking and analysis, and have been at least since the 1970s in some disciplines.

    2. Mike 137 Silver badge

      The end of the World as we know it...

      "genuine improvement of educational standards, teach critical thinking and always asking questions rather than accepting everything one reads blindly on trust"

      The most dangerous concept ever conceived from the point of view of both governments and high commerce. "Consumer Society" as we know it would almost certainly collapse.

      Whether that would be a good or bad thing is another question, as is whether it's due for collapse anyway if we carry on much longer as we are at present.

    3. Mike 137 Silver badge

      Actually ...

      "A bunch of academics who think they know better than the masses and how the masses should be steered."

      The abstract actually states that 'the the study of collective behavior must rise to a “crisis discipline” just as medicine, conservation, and climate science have' so they're not setting out to tell us what to do, they're trying to find out how the phenomenon works and they think it's critical to do so.

      So do I.

    4. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      >If they really want to improve society, they may want to consider putting their weight behind the genuine improvement of educational standards, teach critical thinking and always asking questions rather than accepting everything one reads blindly on trust.

      Instead, they complain that any such thing is "spreading misinformation", right?

      >Of course good citizens shouldn't question too much though, should they?

      Obviously not, everything is for the good of all!

    5. Michael Wojcik Silver badge

      If they really want to improve society, they may want to consider putting their weight behind the genuine improvement of educational standards, teach critical thinking and always asking questions rather than accepting everything one reads blindly on trust.

      So you decided to rant before finding out anything about Carl Bergstrom, I take it.

      But, hey, continue practicing critical thinking. You'll figure it out eventually!

  4. unimaginative Bronze badge
    Unhappy

    Gutenberg's printing press did immense harm - short term

    The most spectacular example of the harm done by printing was Malleus Maleficarum. It was an early best seller (the first bar the Bible, I think) which played a major role in reiving beleife in witchcraft. It would be a bit much to just blame that one book, but it was very influential and changed a lot of people's views.

    The contemporary parellels would be things like people thinking covid vaccines are a plot by Bill Gates to control them because they "read it on the internet".

    Not that books and newspapers cannot be used to circulate tosh too!

    1. Charles 9 Silver badge

      Re: Gutenberg's printing press did immense harm - short term

      Part of the problem is not just the information itself but the speed at which it can spread. The printing press vastly accelerated the spread of information (good or ill), and the Internet has accelerated it to nearly the absolute limit. This is compounded by the reaction times of the parties involved. Nimble organizations can react quickly but run the risk of flying off the handle. Stable ones can thinks things through but may not react quickly enough when something comes fast. Governments and the like tend to the fall into the latter and are having trouble reacting to information that spreads and changes at a moment's notice combined with a public that is trending toward the former.

    2. Pascal Monett Silver badge

      Re: Gutenberg's printing press did immense harm - short term

      The Maleficarum clearly did it for mainland Europe, but it was James Ist' book Daemonologie that kicked off the worst period of witch hunting in the UK.

      The fact that it had been authored by a king, and not an obscure monk, had a lot to do with its influence.

      1. Michael Wojcik Silver badge

        Re: Gutenberg's printing press did immense harm - short term

        Yes, and that on top of the Catholic-Protestant clashes of the era. It was also a period that saw increasing prosecution for petty treason, which exacerbated class tensions that were already heightened from the rise in enclosure during the Tudor reigns.

        It's really not surprising the UK ended up under a strongman not that long after.

  5. jpo234

    So: Do it like China?

  6. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    looking at pictures of cats and hope it all goes away

    The cats are looking back waiting for us to go away.

    The Manx shall inherit the earth. (Or is the Siamese?)

    1. Arthur the cat Silver badge
      Happy

      Re: looking at pictures of cats and hope it all goes away

      British Short Hair (#1 cut).

    2. elsergiovolador Silver badge

      Re: looking at pictures of cats and hope it all goes away

      It ain't going to happen, because we know how to make Dreamies and they don't.

      1. Jimmy2Cows Silver badge
        Joke

        Re: looking at pictures of cats and hope it all goes away

        They don't know yet. I dimly recall a documentary disguised as an advert showing that cats had developed opposable thumbs.

        Catmagedon approacheth, as certain as night follows day.

    3. jake Silver badge

      Re: looking at pictures of cats and hope it all goes away

      Too late. Skogkatts have already inherited the Earth. Some even have a proto;opposable thumb, which allows them to descend from trees head-first (among other interesting things ... operating the can-opener doesn;t seem to be one of them. Yet.).

      1. Denarius Silver badge

        Re: looking at pictures of cats and hope it all goes away

        and others. Had a common ginger cat 30 years ago that could and did run up and down trees. It controlled its descent, especially on jarrah,

  7. Potemkine! Silver badge

    Idiocracy is already there

    And so-called social media are its prophets.

  8. tiggity Silver badge

    Influence

    Influence is always there, social media might be a thing now, but there's media in general (paper or online), real life family & friends, religious group someone may be part of (e.g. some US churches actively promoting / denigrating various politicians).

    Unfortunately people in general don't do long term planning well, so don't expect the majority of people in power to take a serious approach to e.g. climate change until its really bad (yes, I'm aware it can be argued things are really bad already, but that's not the criteria many politicians use as short term staying / getting power often trumps long term plans especially those that might make voters unhappy as lots of climate change mediating action could)

    1. Denarius Silver badge

      Re: Influence

      Tiggerty, you realise that pressure groups have been denigrating or pushing their favourites for millennia ? Not new for any churches to be involved in poliitcs. They have been doing this since Adam was a boy as both are human activities

  9. naive

    It is just white noise

    Nothing new, most what we see from social media and the legacy news outlets has the same information value as the screen contents of an old TV without antenna plugged in.

    Sometimes a few notes can be heard when the humming zombie army of legacy news media and social media posters passes by:

    EV's are good

    CO2 bad

    Trump bad

    China good

    Russia bad

    Spending billions on medieval windmill technology is going to solve the energy requirements of a 21st century society driving electric cars in the next 10 years.

    So maybe they are right, any information might have bad influence on society and the well being of humanity, since most are not smart enough to filter the non-sense and start wasting precious resources.

  10. Pascal Monett Silver badge
    Facepalm

    Academics

    They are top notch for defining what happened in the past. If we have to wait on them to define how we need to manage social media now, we'll be dead before we get the report.

    Social media has been here for a decade already. It's perfectly in academic timing to start worrying about it now.

    1. Arthur the cat Silver badge

      Re: Academics

      Social media has been here for a decade already. It's perfectly in academic timing to start worrying about it now.

      If they'd started in 2006/7 they'd have argued that MySpace absolutely needed regulation. Current social media obviously need the same amount of regulation(*).

      (*) Do I have to point out this is a glossobuccal remark?

    2. Paul Kinsler

      Re: [Academics] . If we have to wait on them ...

      Just because you are not aware of prior academic treatments of social media does not mean they do not exist. For example, you might try looking in the archives of firstmonday.org, which has been publishing since 1996, and often has articles about social media.

      1. Michael Wojcik Silver badge

        Re: [Academics] . If we have to wait on them ...

        As I've mentioned in the past, I touched on some of these issues vis-a-vis Usenet in a piece I published in Works and Days in 1994. And I was far from the first.

        For that matter, Flame Wars: The Discourse of Cyberculture (a special issue of SEQ edited by Mark Dery, and widely circulated among people interested in the subject at the time) came out in 1994.

        But, y'know, looking this stuff up before posting might make someone an academic and interested in the past. Can't have that!

  11. Dr Scrum Master

    Virtual Community

    Long before the rise of the term "social media" I bemoaned the fact that the Internet's ability to draw people together in virtual communities was both a blessing and a curse: on the one hand you can have people share ideas with anyone (who speaks English) in world, on the other hand you have paedophiles who would otherwise be physically isolated in small communities being able to find fellow kiddy-fiddlers in a virtual world and indulge in their particular perversions.

    Whilst the UK MSM were quaintly amused by Merkin peculiarities, we now have UK MSM and English-speaking social media infected with left-pondian social problems, along with the inability of people in either mainstream or social media to distinguish between the historical and social differences in Merkin and non-Merkin societies...

    Then there are governments who see the solution to every problem as legislation resulting in whole libraries of laws for police forces when the police don't even bother to enforce basic long-standing laws, or just go and misinterpret other laws...

    I don't have a solution. And I don't see people who propose "solutions" actually analysing the problems and seeing if their proposed solutions would actually be beneficial or harmful in the whole.

    1. Retiredwatcher

      Re: Virtual Community

      I think it does allow people who have extreme views to come together and become a force.

      Before they presented no threat to a society as they were out voted.

      Now they can prepare disruptive actions across many areas as a team.

      While silent majority watch cats.

      1. Michael Wojcik Silver badge

        Re: Virtual Community

        It does make subcultures much easier to organize. That was one of the first phenomena to be documented, even in the very early days of UUCP-based Usenet.

        On the other hand, it also makes counterspeech much easier.

        As with any complex system, simplistic explanations and proposals are not likely to be useful. (Witness the vast array of idiotic challenges to S.230 currently being floated by everyone from POTUS to random online pundits.) What we need is to accumulate more solid data and create models with some decent predictive power, while considering what kinds of interventions might 1) have significant beneficial effect without 2) having revenge effects that are too costly.

        Which seems to be more or less what these authors are proposing. Huh.

        1. jake Silver badge

          Re: Virtual Community

          "That was one of the first phenomena to be documented, even in the very early days of UUCP-based Usenet."

          Before that, even. BBSes were known for their idiosyncrasy, and even Community Memory brought like-minded people together from across the Bay Area. (I got a lift to Day On The Green on July 13th, 1974 via a Community Memory message. The people with the car are still friends of mine.)

          In the old days, we had the town well and bread oven.

  12. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    A comment about the Twittersphere and the FBsphere..........

    ...and all the other "social spaces" out there..........Ron White had a little to say a while ago.........

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UQv7Tr8HbGE

    Yup........that's the problem right there...........................

    No more discussion needed!!

  13. Filippo Silver badge

    I think the point of the paper is being missed. I admit I haven't read it, but I've read the interview. I don't think the authors are proposing solutions; the "stewardship" sentence is deliberately kept generic because they don't know how this would work in practice without the solution being worse than the problem.

    That's the real point, from what I gather. First: it looks like there may be a problem, but we don't know how big. From experience in other dynamical systems, we know that the problem might be a whole lot bigger than it looks, and it might be that when its magnitude becomes obvious, it will be too late to prevent extensive damage. Maybe this is not the case, we all hope so, but it would be a good idea to try to figure out exactly how big the problem is. Currently, we are basically not even trying to do this; not in a scientific fashion. People are mostly just screaming at each other.

    Second: if the problem turns out to be really big, we currently do not have a viable solution. And, again, we are not looking very hard for one; not in a scientific fashion. Everyone who is concerned about social media is proposing all kinds of "solution", from better education to outright censorship, but nothing that's actually been proven to work in reality. Again, it's mostly just screaming at each other.

    They are actually pretty good points. The fact that social sciences are very, very soft doesn't help. They ought to try to harden up a bit.

    1. Charles 9 Silver badge

      But how do you harden up something so ephemeral as a supposed science built on something as fickle as human nature?

      1. Michael Wojcik Silver badge

        We have examples already. In psychology, for example, we moved from the Classical-natural-history approach used by people like Freud and Jung of "here are some theories I have concocted out of whole cloth based on a handful of anecdotes and personal observations"1 to a field that actually conducts a lot of methodologically-sound studies with decent qualitative and quantitative analysis (even if many of the famous experiments, such as the Stanford prison experiment, are bunk).

        Sociology has pretty much always attempted to be quantitative, though experimental design there is difficult and again the quality of work varies tremendously.

        Anthropology is difficult to "harden" precisely because it emphasizes methods, such as ethnography and contextual inquiry, for which it's very difficult to apply the usual epistemological controls of scientific method (blinding and so forth), and which often necessarily use small sample sizes. (An investigator can't live intimately with a few thousand people.)

        Personally, I think there's plenty of value in the "soft" social sciences and the humanities, and I wouldn't want to try to constrain them to scientific epistemology. Having harder branches of them is also useful, of course. There's benefit to both.

        1Which is not to say there's nothing useful in Freud's thinking. He started one of the great self-critiques of the Enlightenment and the presumption of rationality. I believe he's right about the existence of an unconscious, even if the details in his model are highly suspect, and about the unity of libido. He's probably right, if for the wrong reason, about something akin to the "death drive". Jung, on the other hand, seems like just a bunch of crypto-religious magical thinking, but I admit I have read little of the primary material there. I won't try to get into Lacan or Kristeva or the others in a Reg comment.

      2. Negative Charlie

        > But how do you harden up something so ephemeral as a supposed science built on something as fickle as human nature?

        You set up two Foundations at opposite ends of the Galaxy.

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