OPINION COLUMNS

Ruby Ridge is right around the corner

By Joy Carrico | Published Saturday, March 25, 2017
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I think social media is turning us all into extremists.

Joy Carrico

There are three different concepts at play here: confirmation bias, the online disinhibition effect and cognitive dissonance. These are big words, I know, but they’re pretty easy to understand. Stick with me.

CONFIRMATION BIAS

Confirmation bias is the tendency of people to pay attention to evidence that supports their beliefs and ignore evidence that contradicts it. People operating under this bias will tend to stick with sources of information with like-minded ideas, they will remember information in a way that skews it toward their belief, they will interpret ambiguous information in their favor and they will twist facts to support their beliefs. At the same time they will do the exact opposite with information that contradicts them: they will discredit its source, and they won’t remember the facts accurately.

How many times have I unfollowed a friend on Facebook because they were making political comments I did not agree with? Many. I’m sure I’m not alone. I am, in essence, creating a feed that supports my viewpoint of things by continuing to weed out the posts of those people who disagree with me. Over time I can begin to believe the world thinks like me – certainly everyone on Facebook does – conveniently forgetting that I created this little pseudo-reality.

ONLINE DISINHIBITION EFFECT

The online disinhibition effect is the phenomenon that people communicating online will disregard social norms more readily than people communicating face-to-face. In other words, people will be more likely to be rude in online comments than in an in-person exchange.

With electronic communication, we have a layer of anonymity and invisibility. People who want to say ugly things but don’t want anyone to know who’s saying them can create an email address that doesn’t reveal their identity or create a fake Facebook page. They can then fire off as much venom as they please.

I’ve received a few of these.

Invisibility means it’s easier to insult someone when you’re not looking at them. When we email or post comments, we cannot look into the eyes of our recipients as we deliver our words, making it much easier to disregard moral responsibilities. It’s much easier to attack someone when your eyes aren’t telling you that you are hurting them.

I’m guessing you don’t have to look further than your Facebook feed to find ample evidence of people disregarding moral responsibilities and just being ugly to each other. If it’s not there, look on the Messenger Facebook page. It’s certainly there.

COGNITIVE DISSONANCE

We humans have a need to resolve the inner turmoil created by holding two conflicting beliefs at the same time, or when our actions do not match our words. The classic example is someone who admits that smoking is unhealthy yet smokes two packs per day. The feeling of unease about the mental tension created in believing one thing and behaving in a contradictory manner is uncomfortable, and people try to ease that discomfort by resolving the conflict.

The smoker could quit smoking, of course, and the tension would be relieved.

Or, the smoker can tell himself/herself that smoking isn’t as bad as “they” claim, or it’s somehow keeping him/her from some more damaging behavior (like overeating) or that there’s a conspiracy of the government to undermine the tobacco industry. This option is appealing because the smoker gets to keep smoking, and he/she doesn’t have to admit being wrong.

WE DON’T LIKE TO ADMIT WHEN WE’RE WRONG

In the face of evidence that we might be wrong, we will take all necessary action to remove, discredit or otherwise defeat the evidence, rather than admit wrongdoing.

We might sidestep being wrong by offering the un-apology “I’m sorry if what I said hurt your feelings.” No apology in that, just a conditional statement based on a possible contingency that we might have said something someone else found hurtful.

We might throw someone else under the bus, or proclaim our actions to be the innocent consequences of being the victim of someone else’s wrongdoing.

There is psychological research to back this up, but do you need it? We have all witnessed people taking action to avoid admitting they’re wrong.

THE THEORY

So, here’s my reasoning for my theory that social media is turning us into extremists.

We slowly weed out those on Facebook who don’t agree with our views, thus creating an audience of like-minded people who will agree with us (confirmation bias). Because there are no immediate negative consequences, we post things that are far more extreme than we would probably say if face-to-face with someone (disinhibition affect). The immediate nature of social media adds fuel to the fire, and our emotions are heightened by the constant influx of information, so we become more passionate about the topic and everything gets bigger.

Now that we’ve fired off that heated comment, we may regret it, but we don’t like to admit we’re wrong, so we try to justify our comments (due to cognitive dissonance) and further commit ourselves to our statements. We convince ourselves that we’re right and justified, no matter how ugly we act.

If right thinking follows right action, then the opposite is also true. As we act negatively, we train our brains to think negatively and our social norms are adjusted to be less social.

As a result of all of this, we grow a tolerance for bad behavior. Our online misbehavior starts leaking into our real lives, and we find it less necessary to be nice to each other. We find ourselves being more reactionary to viewpoints we don’t like (after all, we’re in the majority because almost everyone we know agrees with us) and being more aggressive in our opposition.

The same is happening on the other side of the issue (almost everyone they know agrees with them) and as everyone’s aggression increases, so do the emotions and the feeling of being threatened. The rift between left and right gets bigger, and people on the other side become less human, less worthy of respect and regard. So everyone pumps up the volume.

And it repeats like rapid gunfire.

Joy Carrico is a Messenger graphic artist.

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