A group of 17 researchers from a wide cross-section of different disciplines have come together to contribute to a paper suggesting social media might be a risk to humanity's continued existence as we know it.
The paper – which reads less like a study of a particular subject and more like the family of an addict planning an intervention – says social media, and specifically the misinformation and conspiracy theories prevalent therein, could lead to societal collapse.
In an interview with Vox about the study, Joe Bak-Coleman, lead author and postdoctoral fellow at the University of Washington Center for an Informed Public, described the urgency of the problem:
One of the things about complex systems [like human societies] is they have a finite limit to perturbation. If you disturb them too much, they change. And they often tend to fail catastrophically, unexpectedly, without warning.
As a result, the authors of the paper, entitled "Stewardship of global collective behavior", argue that academics should be treating the way human society interacts with technology, and specifically social media, as a "crisis discipline".
This reflects a very specific set of circumstances surrounding the problem, as crisis disciplines – like climate change and conservation – tend to be phenomena that are not perfectly understood, as the paper acknowledges:
Crisis disciplines are distinct from other areas of urgent, evidenced-based research in their need to consider the degradation of an entire complex system – without a complete description of the system's dynamics.
Ah. So the world is potentially going to end, but we don't understand if, when or how it's going to happen. That sounds less than ideal. But is it really that big of an issue? Can we not just go back to looking at pictures of cats and hope it all goes away?
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Co-author Carl Bergstrom, a biology professor at the University of Washington, says that perhaps we need to pay a little more attention.
Comparing the introduction of the internet and social media to the arrival of the printing press, he suggests that while Johannes Gutenberg's invention ultimately had a positive effect, it wasn't without a lot of hurt in the short term that we would do well to avoid this time around:
The printing press came out and upended history. We're still recovering from the capacity that the printing press gave to Martin Luther. The printing press radically changed the political landscape in Europe. And, you know, depending on whose histories you go by, you had decades if not centuries of war... It reminds me of one of the least intelligent critiques of the [COVID-19] vaccines that we're using now: "We didn't have vaccines during the Black Death plague. And we're still here." We are, but it took out a third of the population of Europe.
Due to the fact the scientists know what they don't know regarding the effects of social media on collective behaviour, the paper proposes no solid solutions as such, beyond "stewardship of social systems", which is presumably fancy talk for improved regulation and oversight of Big Tech.
While this may be in the works, the power of firms like Facebook, Google, and Apple makes it a hard sell. Also, lumbering government response times to tech developments, combined with the increasingly tribal, combative nature of political debate mean regulators and lawmakers frequently find themselves several steps behind online trends and unable to agree what to do about them in any case.
So there are a lot of problems with social media. But come on, they're not really going to lead to the end of the world, surely? Bergstrom thinks we could do what is required, but he is not altogether confident about how things will turn out if nothing is done to rein in the "infodemic" of misinformation:
It's still possible to mitigate harm as you go through a transformation, even if you know you're going to be fine. I also don't think it's completely obvious that we are going to be fine on the other end.
Put him down for a maybe. ®