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Opinion: Social Media Has Potential to Fuel More Violence

Why is it that in a society where the longtime prevalent view is that elections are run fairly, millions of people believed the opposite, with little or no proof, based solely on utterances of a small group of people?

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(TNS) — Elon Musk’s acquisition of Twitter and its swift and drastic restructuring may have effects far beyond one company’s profit. Left unchecked, the connectivity, speed and business incentives in online social media communication may facilitate more events like the attack on the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021.

How so?

Look at the bigger question: Why is it that in a society where the longtime prevalent view is that elections are run fairly, millions of people quickly started to believe the opposite, with little or no proof, based solely on the utterances of a small group of people?

This can happen with the quick spread of misinformation in connected networks. I use mathematical modeling to study this.

Each of us makes decentralized choices based on our beliefs, but our choices are influenced by those of our family and friends, and in turn, we influence theirs. So, if some people are led to believe a false narrative about election integrity, some of their friends may choose to believe it as well, and their actions, in turn, may affect more people. This interdependence among individual choices in our network of friends is a local effect to which our actions contribute directly.

Collective societal outcomes affect our decisions, too, by making each of us more likely to take action if many others make the same choice. So, if a large number of people start to believe a false narrative about election integrity and it is shared widely, then we are more likely to believe it as well, separately from what our friends believe. This is a global effect to which our actions contribute indirectly.

This means that each person’s decision to believe a false narrative is influenced by local and global effects, and in turn contributes to these effects. Mathematical logic implies that the stronger an effect is, the bigger is its impact on the other, making the other effect stronger and the consequent total effect even larger. Starting from a small group, a cascading chain reaction can influence a large part of society.

Social media channels are catalysts in this chain reaction. An attack on election integrity promoted by a small group of people spreads quickly to their connections on social media. As social networks seek to increase engagement with instant and ubiquitous interaction, their automated algorithms amplify the narrative with indicators of “likes” or “trends” or “popular” topics. This strengthens global effects, leading more people to believe the narrative, and they in turn affect their friends, setting off another chain reaction. With help from automated accounts and repeated utterances from influencers and others with big megaphones, an election fraud narrative can escalate swiftly. Election integrity can be undermined more easily because we need to convince only a small minority of all voters. From there, it can be a small incendiary step to a physical assault on a branch of government.

Social networks are unique in their ability to transmit information quickly and their relative lack of accountability for content they host. This is their boon and their bane. Election information outside social networks is typically transmitted through specialized organizations such as news outlets, oversight bodies, certification and enforcement agencies, judicial review and so on. These institutions have a combination of business, legal and reputational incentives to curtail false narratives. They are more motivated toward accuracy and spend more resources and time to reach and publish conclusions. This reduces the spread of misinformation. Online social networks are understandably against this model because they have a competitive disadvantage in this area, at least for now, and their business model rewards other metrics such as growth and engagement.

No doubt, social media networks have many benefits and are an integral component of society. They should compete and grow based on the quality of their products. We also need to understand the effects of their business decisions on societal outcomes and provide financial and legislative incentives to balance the two. Speed is intrinsic to online interaction and accuracy is important at high speeds. With higher speed and lower accuracy, we should prepare for bigger accidents. Reducing corporate resources to block misinformation worsens the situation.

The Capitol insurrection is not an isolated event. Journalist Maria Ressa described additional situations with similar features in her 2021 Nobel Peace Prize lecture. Recent threats and attacks on political leaders based on conspiracy theories amplified online are similarly worrisome. A common thread is that underlying structures in social media communication provide channels facilitating such events. People who understand this process are going to use it again. The incentives are in place and the logic is inescapable.

© 2022 The Kansas City Star. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.


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