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Are we falling into criti-hype?
While social media is often held to account for its role in spreading misinformation, there is an argument that we are failing to examine other sources
There is a great deal of speculation about the impact of technology on attitudes and behaviours. Recently the Duke of Sussex blamed overwhelming “mass-scale misinformation” for Covid vaccine hesitancy when he presented an award to the team behind the Oxford/AstraZeneca jab. Justin Trudeau accused far right group Rebel News of spreading misinformation about coronavirus vaccines and contributing to the growing number of protests across the country.
At face value, it is not an unreasonable assertion that the blame for conspiracy theories should be laid at the door of social media. After all, the last two decades have seen a significant rise in disinformation on the web: a casual browsing of YouTube will quickly allow you to encounter a wide range of Conspiracy Theory materials. Indeed, recent Ipsos polling suggests 26% of the UK population claim they have heard COVID anti-vax messages on social media and, of this group, 42% say they shared such messages – equal to around 11% of the population overall.
This is certainly consistent with the position of Sapiens author Yuval Noah Harari who considers that social media has a powerful and disturbing potential to persuade us of a wide range of belief: he recently was quoted as saying:
“There is a lot of talk of hacking computers, smartphones, computers, emails, bank accounts, but the really big thing is hacking human beings, if you have enough data about me and enough computer power and biological knowledge, you can hack my body, my brain, my life. You can reach a point where you know me better than I know myself.”
There have been some significant milestones that support the notion that technology is responsible for shaping our beliefs. The Netflix film The Social Dilemma and Shoshana Zuboff’s book, The Age of Surveillance Capitalism, both set out the case for the ability of social media firms to directly influence our thoughts.
But do we need some caution in pointing the finger too firmly at social media? Technology critic Cory Doctrow suggests these critiques lack much convincing evidence to support their case. For example, Zuboff cites a Facebook study in which people who were given more negative posts were shown to be more likely to make their own negative posts whilst people give more positive posts were more likely to make positive ones. While there is clearly a case to be made (albeit one which is also contested) the impact is not a large one. The findings were statistically significant but likely only because they had enormous sample sizes — in one study, 689,003 people —the effect sizes were small (in that same study, Cohen’s d = 0.02).
So while claims are made about the impact of technology as a key reason for the increase in Conspiracy Theories and disinformation generally, there remains a lack of convincing evidence that this is necessarily the case.
Clearly trying to disentangle the societal impact of different information sources on society at large is never going to be an easy task. But in one of the relatively few well-resourced and solid pieces of work done in this space, the Harvard Berkman Klein Center analysed allegations relating to voter mail-in fraud which was a huge controversy in the 2020 US presidential election. The researchers concluded that this issue was part of a systematic campaign amplified by a wide range of traditional media outlets. They suggested that Fox News, a right-wing television network, was more influential in spreading beliefs about voter mail-in fraud than social media, concluding:
“Our findings suggest that this highly effective disinformation campaign, with potentially profound effects for both participation in, and the legitimacy of, the 2020 election, was an elite-driven, mass-media led process. Social media played only a secondary role.”
This supports another study conducted in 2017 which found greater Internet use is not associated with faster growth in political polarization among US demographic groups.
These findings perhaps support claims that technology’s persuasive powers are often overstated. Criti-hype is a term that has recently gained some prominence, suggesting that tales of the dangers of a new technology serve the purpose of effectively promoting its purported power.
Clearly social media bears some of the responsibility for the spread of misinformation but there does seem to be a case for looking more widely for the causes of this phenomenon.