Personal notes on social media outrage

My new year’s resolution is to engage with social media in a different way. What follows is an incomplete tour of some scholarship on social media outrage, along with speculative notes that are personal in nature. The goal of this reflection is not to solve any particular problem, or to advance any particular argument, but simply to make peace with the gap between what I want social media to be and what it actually is.

Filter bubbles

In the ongoing media post-mortem of the 2016 US presidential election, a number of news outlets have questioned the role of social media in determining public opinion. The Guardian exposed people to ideologically opposed Facebook news feeds, and Buzzfeed aired an analysis of specific Facebook features they believe have outsized political impact. These and other recent articles are in whole or in part inspired by the idea of “filter bubbles,” or the notion that people are guided into ideological cul-de-sacs by the well-meaning but ultimately harmful algorithms that decide what we see and don’t see on Facebook, Twitter, etc.

Fake News

For the past day or two the people I follow on Twitter have been loudly calling for Facebook to crack down on fake news. The impetus is likely a Buzzfeed article detailing how a group of enterprising young Macedonians are making a lot of money from advertising on fake news sites. Their articles are designed to inflame partisan hatred, with clickbait-style titles like “Proof surfaces that Obama was born in Kenya—Trump was right all along…” Conservatives are their primary targets.

Online echo chambers

In the wake of Trump’s election, many of my friends have raised the question of whether social media sites like Facebook and Twitter and search engines such as Google have exacerbated existing political divisions by creating “echo chambers” and “filter bubbles.” Today Mark Zuckerberg, CEO of Facebook, defended the company’s news feed algorithms, making the case that the proliferation of fake news articles was not a problem, and emphasizing the necessity of not introducing bias into the system.

Joining the communication ecosystem

Over the past four years I’ve been working on a PhD in Psychological and Brain Sciences at Dartmouth College. My research draws equally from the traditions of social and cognitive psychology and neuroscience. During my training, the “replication crisis” in the sciences has become the subject of many discussions, both private and popular. I have had the confusing yet wholly enriching experience of learning a set of methods and practices for isolating facts and interpreting meanings, while also learning that these methods and practices are deeply flawed and must to be subject to stringent, ceaseless critique if they are to survive.