Comment: What can we do about the ‘dumb mob’ & echo chambers on social media?

Both media and governance need disinterested and impartial institutions.

Mothership | November 14, 2021, 10:13 AM

Follow us on Telegram for the latest updates:

COMMENTARY: "Social media amplifies the human tendency to bind with one’s own kind. It reduces complex social challenges to mobilizing slogans that reverberate in echo-chambers of the like-minded rather than provide a platform for persuasion, dialogue and the reach for consensus."

In their book Renovating Democracy, the founders of the Berggruen Institute, Nathan Gardels and Nicolas Berggruen, write about how a new public sensibility about political decision-making has been unleashed on social media, empowering both the forces of inclusion and exclusion at the same time.

As such, social media has also brought forth a new crisis: the amplification of the human tendency towards echo chambers with the sensationalism of news and information. In turn, this pushes people towards extremes.

It is therefore more important than ever for democracies to create impartial and disinterested institutions to help preserve credibility and enable dialogue across tribal boundaries.

Renovating Democracy is published by the University of California Press in 2019 and you can get a copy of it here.

By Nathan Gardels and Nicolas Berggruen

A new public sensibility

As a platform open to all, social media challenges the custodianship of elites and even the legitimacy of representative democracy. It heralds a new distribution of power that goes hand in hand with the increasing preference of publics in the West for the direct democracy of referendums and citizens’ initiatives.

We’ve seen the highly disruptive Catalan independence and Brexit referendums. Populist movements and insurgent parties elsewhere across

Europe, such as the Five Star Movement in Italy, are all proposing referendums and plebiscitary democracy as the way to cope with pressing issues from European integration to immigration.

Yet, a new sensibility has been unleashed: If ordinary citizens believe they can know as much as those who would govern them, and are governing them badly, who needs governing institutions? Why can’t the disgruntled public, connected by social media, just make decisions on its own?

Such an idea fits easily with the notion that, since the information age has created a more informed citizenry than at any time in history,

intermediaries, such as representatives in an assembly or policy experts, can be dispensed with.

This line of thinking was best expressed by Mark Zuckerberg in an open letter announcing Facebook’s initial public offering in 2012:

"By giving people the power to share, we are starting to see people make their voices heard on a different scale from what has historically been possible. These voices will increase in number and volume. They cannot be ignored. Over time, we expect governments will become more responsive to issues and concerns raised directly by all their people rather than through intermediaries controlled by a select few."

"The dumb mob"

Zuckerberg certainly had his finger on the pulse of his time. Political awakenings were erupting everywhere across the globe. People fed up in one way or another with unresponsive elites had begun demanding the dignity of meaningful participation in setting the rules that govern their lives. Through social media they now had the wherewithal to share and organize their ill temper or utopian hopes.

This has proved true, however, not only of the forces of inclusion, such as we saw in the Arab Spring, and which Zuckerberg clearly had in mind.

The tools of social media and direct democracy are also available to the forces of exclusion as we saw most clearly in both the Brexit and Trump campaigns – as well as through the Russian efforts to sow racial animosity and anti-Hillary Clinton sentiment through manipulating social media during the 2016 election.

As direct democracy more and more becomes the governing practice of choice by proliferating constituencies whose voice is amplified by social media, the countervailing institutions of deliberation must be equally strengthened.

The raw, unprocessed expression of discontent with governing elites alone leads to “the dumb mob” --- both on social media and at the ballot box. Only mediated feedback formulated into responsive policies can lead to a collectively intelligent response.

In short, the same medium that so effectively transmits a howling message of change also undermines the ability to make it. Social media amplifies the human tendency to bind with one’s own kind.

It reduces complex social challenges to mobilizing slogans that reverberate in echo-chambers of the like-minded rather than provide a platform for persuasion, dialogue and the reach for consensus.

It serially divides the body politic among itself. Polarization rigidifies. Paralysis and gridlock sets in. Authoritarian and demagogic strongman alternatives start to look attractive as the way to create order out of chaos.

The main conflict in sorting out this issue is the existential threat to democratic governance from self-referential silos to fake news, alternative facts and hate speech versus the bottom line business model of social media platforms based on monetizing attention through engagement and virality, whatever the truth content of information.

Importance of ensuring information is trustworthy

Philosopher Onora O’Neill is right in this regard to criticize what she calls “cyber romantics” who defend absolute free speech as the be all and end all. The truth content and verified trustworthiness of information and sources, she contends, is equally important in “the ethics of communication.”

She also relates the ethics of “informed consent” in medical matters to privacy of personal data and its secondary use by social media companies such as Facebook.  To the end of protecting that privacy, in May, 2018, the European Union introduced new rules, the European Data Protection Regulation, that gives users the right to control their own information, not the digital companies.

In Europe or China, governments have few qualms about stepping in and making the rules. China has deployed hundreds of thousands of censors to track social media and delete troubling posts; through its Network Enforcement Act, Germany imposes a stiff fine of 50 million euros for hate speech or fake news if not removed on-line. “

"The big internet platforms, through their algorithms, have become an eye of the needle which diverse media must pass through [to access their users]," German Chancellor Angela Merkel warned when she called for Facebook and others to make their algorithms transparent so users know how they are being steered.

This whole approach deeply troubles critics who point out that it subcontracts decisions over free speech in Germany to America’s high-

tech companies. They believe instead that the German courts, not Mark Zuckerberg, should be making that decision.

Others worry as well that there is danger of regulators going too far. As the EU Digital Commissioner has put it: "Fake news is bad, but a ministry of truth is worse."

Sensationalism of news and information

Indeed, in the wake of the 2016 election even Mark Zuckerberg has been forced to think again. He wrote in a lengthy communique to Facebook shareholders in February, 2017:

"Social media is a short-form medium where resonant messages get amplified many times. This rewards simplicity and discourages nuance. At its best, this focuses messages and exposes people to different ideas. At its worst, it oversimplifies important topics and pushes us towards extremes."

News and information sensationalized to get views, Zuckerberg continued, is his priority concern going forward.

"Sensationalism moves people away from balanced nuanced opinions towards polarized extremes. If this continues and we lose common understanding, then even if we eliminated all misinformation, people would just emphasize different sets of facts to fit their polarized opinions. That’s why I’m so worried about sensationalism in media."

That is the crisis now. It involves not just Facebook but all other social media platforms. Yet media these days evolves rapidly.

One hope, as Eric Schmidt of Alphabet, Google’s parent company, has expressed, is that the “mobocratic algorithm” and echo-chambers of the like-minded are only early responses to an overwhelming deluge of information that is new to human experience.

In time, perhaps in proportion to the ever greater cascade of data, curation will again emerge as a key way to avoid overload. The estimable challenge here will be how curatorial authority, like political authority, can be re-established? On what basis? By what criteria?

Pierre Omidyar, co-founder of eBay and the chair of the Berggruen Institute’s social media working group, offers some suggestions. He argues that, outside mathematics, there is no one objective truth, only consensual truth agreed upon by knowledgeable people – "experts" --who are transparent about the methods by which they arrive at their data and conclusions.

In media, transparency implies conveying to readers and viewers how information and sources are verified and why they are credible.

Having exposure to different points of view will be key

Even so, it is human nature for individuals to process information through their own biases. For Omidyar, the best way to counter that is not

just to challenge one view with another, but to expose the contradictions in arguments that confirm or raise doubts about its value as truth.

Exposure to multiple, instead of merely opposing, arguments, Omidyar argues, would create a critical space by comparing and contrasting different points of view.

Just as with political revolutions, technological revolutions tend to unfold in phases. First comes the liberating breakthrough from the old order burnished with utopian ideals. Next comes the reaction to abuses that inevitably arise from embarking on a new path for which there are no rules, especially for the first movers who become the new masters.

Finally, a new governing order is established that sorts out and tempers the mistakes and excesses from the benefits of transformational change. This, it seems – let’s hope – is where we are today.

The ultimate consequence unless we get this issue under control is the universalization of nihilism in which the whole notion of consensual truth collapses and the subjectivization of fact fills the vacuum, the sad remains of the heyday of Enlightenment values.

Aviv Ovadya, chief technologist at the University of Michigan’s Center for Social Media Responsibility sees a "catastrophic failure of the marketplace of ideas" on the horizon, where "no one believes anything or everyone believes lies." He calls it the "infopocalypse."

These penetrating observations notwithstanding, the only tool secular democracies have is reasoned deliberation to establish consensual truths that inform a governing narrative. But that tool itself has to be reconfigured by absorbing and transforming the very forces that are undermining it.

The role of impartial and disinterested institutions

The democratization of information through digital media is a close cousin of direct democracy in governance. Both media and governance need disinterested and impartial institutions.

In the case of governance, it is about tradeoffs and negotiations among contending, often unequal, interests. In the media, it is about sorting out truth claims among the unlike minded and creating platforms that enable dialogue across tribal boundaries.

When there are no institutions or practices that can establish and preserve credibility, the famous philosopher of consciousness, Daniel

Dennett , says, then there is no solid ground for a democratic discourse.

Instead, what we will see – and in fact are already seeing -- is "an arms race of ploy and counterploy" in which the whole notion of objectivity is a casualty of that battle of truths.

The paradox of governance in the age of social networks is that, precisely because there is more participation than ever before along with peer-driven media unchecked by factual observation, never has the need been greater for countervailing practices and institutions to establish facts, deliberate wise choices, mediate fair trade-offs and forge consensus that can sustain long-term implementation of policies.

If contemporary democracies are going to compete with autocratic systems on the world stage while avoiding their own suicide through polarization and paralysis fueled by untrustworthy information, they need a radical renovation that responds to the forces undermining them.

Above all, such a renovation must engage the participatory power of social media and the increasing preference of publics for direct democracy by designing new, impartial institutions and practices that interpose a deliberative check against the false claims, misinformation, intolerance and magical thinking that come along with the immediate wash of networked popular sentiment.

Top photo via Michal Matlon/Unsplash