The real problem with mass social media is: Gossip
So suggests Arnold Kling, and it explains the problem better than all the talk about ‘fake news’ and deleting bad content, and all that:
The Internet, smart phones, and social media (ISS) have set human communication back about 20,000 years. That is, we now rely more on gossip than we have since we lived in small tribes.
1. Human evolution produced gossip. Cultural anthropology sees gossip as an informal way of enforcing group norms. It is effective in small groups. But gossip is not the search for truth. It is a search for approval by attacking the perceived flaws of others.
2. As a social enforcement mechanism, gossip does not scale. Large societies need other enforcement mechanisms: government, religion, written codes.
3. Our ISS technology changes this. It makes it possible to gossip effectively at large scale. This in turn has revived our propensity to rely on gossip. Beliefs spread without being tested for truth.
4. We have increased the power of gossip-mongers and correspondingly reduced the power of elite institutions of the 20th century, including politicians, mainstream media, and scientists.
5. The result is that we are living through a period of chaos. Symptoms include conspiracy theories, information bubbles, cancel culture, President Trump’s tweets, and widespread institutional decay and dysfunction.
6. To escape from the chaos, we will need new norms of behavior that incline us away from gossip.
It sits well with my experience. Facebook, in particular, is a very strange place. Everyone is a ‘friend’, no matter if you last saw them in primary school or if they’re your plumber. It creates a weird space that feels just, wrong.
Yuval Noah Harari discusses gossip and the role it plays in Sapiens, and it is something that we’re all prone to as humans, and it works at a small scale. But universally? It fails bigly, as that gossip monger would say. It’s why we can’t control it, the very nature of the tools promotes it. Possibly the only way to combat it is to break social media into ten thousand villages, and make the global platforms more responsible for what’s said on them – regulated like newspapers, TV, radio and all that came before them.