A new world disorder?

A new world disorder caused by misinformation?
Credit: Wesley Allsbrook /Scientific American

News: It may seem that absolutely everyone today is glued to their phones and uses social media, but that’s not true. Facebook, the largest social media network globally, claims “2.41 billion monthly active users as of the second quarter of 2019.”

Billions do use social media (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, etc.), but billions also do not. Further, there are many people counted as “active users” who simply are not. They log in occasionally (enough to be counted) but spend little time on social media on any given day. And, they fit no particular profile. They are old, young, rich, poor, men, women, children, all races, all ethnicities, etc. … and they seem to live their lives just fine.

So, why has social media had such a pervasive effect on our society? An increasingly negative effect? Why has it helped create what Claire Wardle calls a “new world disorder”?

Since the 1980’s, it may seem like technology has fundamentally altered human society. How different are our lives today compared to 35 or 40 years ago? The 1980’s seemed a breathless break with the ’70’s, ’60’s, ’50’s, and before. But, 2019 compared to the 1980’s? The changes and differences are like the Grand Canyon compared to a creek.

Yet, the fact is that technology has not changed humans. Instead, humans have changed the technology. The original hope and intent of Facebook, Twitter, and other platforms may have been to promote tolerance and democracy (and make truckloads of money) but, in fact, humans have taken social media and used it–often unwittingly–to do the opposite.

We have known for decades (long before the 1980’s) that “humans are wired to respond to emotional triggers and share misinformation [willingly] if it reinforces existing beliefs and prejudices.” The people who have weaponized information design “content that they hope will so anger or excite targeted users that the audience will become the messenger.” Regular everyday users of social media become “unwitting agents of disinformation.”

This is depressing. How can we change human nature? We can’t, at least not quickly. The messy, maddening, dangerous, unsettling social media-driven world we live in today has become the new normal. And, building a bulwark against that and learning to communicate again responsibly, calmly, and smartly will take education, discipline, and time–perhaps multiple generations.

But, we can do something a little faster about the conditions that help amplify the disorder–income inequality, political and economic upheaval, immigration reform, automation and the loss of jobs and privacy, mitigating climate change, and more. Our votes and the way we choose to spend our money and social capital can have an impact.

It’s time to accept our unstable world and begin the task of putting it back on an even keel. As a start, how much do you really need to use social media?

Learn more: Misinformation has created a new world disorder: Our willingness to share content without thinking is exploited to spread disinformation (Claire Wardle, Scientific American, September 2019).

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