Long Story Short: Not to be antisocial, but ...
This past week, two topics dominated social media: The Democratic primaries and –19. I want to discuss the role of social media in spreading pessimistic viewpoints and inciting hysteria, because that directly impacts most, if not all of us.
In this context, we’re primarily talking about Facebook, which is used by sixty-nine percent of American adults. Perhaps surprisingly, college educated people use Facebook more than those with only high school degrees. The numbers drop with people over sixty. YouTube has more users, but it doesn’t spread information as nimbly as Facebook. Twitter and Instagram also play roles in the disbursement of overheated rhetoric and negative information, along with other, smaller social media platforms. But Facebook is still the champ. A sobering fact: four out of ten US adults get their news from Facebook!
If you’ve never played the game of “telephone,” you should. Write a message down and have someone whisper it to another person, who then whispers it to another, and so on, until the last person announces the message out loud. If you’ve only heard about this game, but never tried it, you’ll be surprised how much the final message differs from the original.
The telephone factor in social media
Research out of the University of Warwick has found that as stories spread on social media, they tend to become more negative and increasingly inaccurate, while taking on a tone of hysteria. This is the first time researchers have examined the impact of dread and how it increases threat perception, while also determining whether can counter it.
Topics involving “uncontrollable, fatal, involuntary, and catastrophic outcomes” (a new virus for instance) “may be particularly susceptible to amplification because of the psychological biases inherent in dread risk avoidance,” says the study’s author, Thomas Hills, a University of Warwick psychology professor. Particularly frustrating for those struggling to present cogent facts, objectively accurate news doesn’t stem panic once people have been exposed to inaccurate negative news.
The real social network
The study involved fourteen chains of eight people, who essentially played telephone via Facebook. In each test, news stories involving “dreaded” topics became more negative, tending toward fear and panic as they were passed along. The more a message was transmitted, the more negative it became. But even when the original unbiased story was presented to people at the end of the chain, it completely failed to alter their negative outlook. Zero effect.
Hills says: “Society is an amplifier for risk. This research explains why our world looks increasingly threatening despite consistent reductions in real-world threats. It also shows that the more people share information, the further that information gets from the facts and the more resilient it becomes to correction.” To this, I would add, when major news events dominate social media, the sheer preponderance of dire posts can create an impression of exigency.
An article in Wired Magazine titled Media Hysteria: An Epidemic of Panic discusses the book, Histories; Hysterical Epidemics and Modern Media, by Princeton professor Elaine Showalter, a feminist scholar, medical historian, and respected cultural critic. Media Hysteria is her term for the “malady that has engulfed modern journalism, promoted divisiveness and fragmentation, advanced paranoia and conspiracy, and heightened a national culture of victimization.” It was published in 1997! Imagine how the rise of Facebook has contributed to this media hysteria.
In our DNA?
In his book Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire: A 500-Year History, best-selling novelist, public radio Studio 360 host, and acclaimed cultural critic Kurt Andersen argues that credulity was baked into American culture from the start. “America was founded by wishful dreamers, magical thinkers, and true believers, by hucksters and their suckers,” says Anderson.
Researchers have found that many political conservatives have a loose relationship with facts. But Anderson argues that it is the left, that let Pandora out of the box, with hippy-dippy sixty’s freedom of thought, where all beliefs—no matter how wacky—became acceptable. “Psychedelics, academic scholarship, and the New Age movement conspire to make reason and reality the realms of idiots and squares,” summarizes New York Times reviewer, Hanna Rosin. In other words, we live in a culture—distinct from other countries—that is willing to accept any far-fetched idea out of a sense of tolerance, and then feel proud about it.
To further complicate things, recent research on perceptions of news accuracy found that study participants routinely judge around forty percent of legitimate news stories to be false, and twenty percent of fabricated news stories to be true. Humans are largely incapable of separating truth from fiction. Add confirmation bias to the mix, and it’s easy to understand why inaccurate and pessimistic information travels so freely on social media.
Controlling the uncontrollable
There are many articles on how and why conspiracy theories happen. Most agree with the conclusions summarized in the study, The Psychology of Conspiracy Theories. Conspiracy theories occur when people seek meaning amidst uncertainty. They provide a sense of control. They also fill a biological need to identify causal relationships for random occurrences, particularly negative ones.
Studies have shown that people are likely to turn to conspiracy theories when they feel anxious and powerless. For example, if your candidate drops out of the primary race, there is a tendency to imagine a sinister cause. “People on the losing (vs. winning) side of political processes,” says the report mentioned above, “also appear more likely to believe conspiracy theories.”
Toe the line
There’s another cause for conspiracies—and other forms of overheated online rhetoric—that seems particularly relevant to Facebook: social motivations, “including the desire to belong and to maintain a positive image of the self and the in-group.” While this may pertain to the full spectrum of political philosophies, I notice it among my own left-wing peer group, where there is tremendous social pressure to maintain ideological purity. Anyone stepping out of line to question the canon—or promote even a slightly nonconformist viewpoint—often receives a dismissive rebuke. “Food for thought” is not a phase often heard within social groups, where adherence to belief eclipses open-mindedness.
So, what do we make of all this? First, it’s helpful to be aware that news and views on important topics on Facebook grow progressively more negative, inaccurate, and hysterical as they travel around. Second, it seems that humans—especially Americans—are wired to seek unwarranted conspiratorial explanations in disturbing events.
Communal pressure likely compels participants to adhere and contribute to a homogeneous message among social groups, where outside-the-box ideas are discouraged. Finally, Facebook may not be the place for measured, rational responses to hot button issues, since accurate information does not correct negative rhetoric and hysteria.
Maybe it’s better to go back to pictures of children and flowers. Now if I could only take my own advice, I would live a less contentious social media life.
Any unforeseen reason
On February 21, I emailed Common Council President Darius Pridgen with a link to my story on school speed zones. I asked for a reply to hear the Council President’s reaction. I stressed that I was calling as a Buffalo citizen, not a reporter.
The automated response said in part: “If your email needs a reply we will do so as soon as possible. If for any unforeseen reason we fail to contact you within three business days, please feel free to contact my office at 716-851-4980.”
An unforeseen reason must have occurred, because I received no reply, so I called and left a message again asking for a return call. Three business days later, I called again, and talked to someone in Pridgen’s office, who said she would pass on my request for a response.
More unforeseen reasons ensued, and, three days later, I called again, and was told there was no for responding. Pridgen’s message implies that his habit is to respond within three days. The seriousness of this is driven home by the request for a call if he fails to do so.
On my last call, it was suggested that I email again, which I did. That was Friday, so unless I hear back today, I will not be able to talk to the Council President before an important event regarding this topic taking place tomorrow.
The important event
The Buffalo News reports that the Common Council is inviting the public to comment on an amendment to the camera program, to limit the hours it’s in force. In addition, the public may express any concerns about the school zone speed limits.
When is the meeting? Tomorrow (Tuesday, March 10), at 1 p.m. during the Council's Legislation Committee meeting, when the people most impacted by the law are at work. Because I will likely not be able to attend, I wanted to talk to Pridgen before the meeting. Any reader who is planning to attend is urged to read the article linked above. It contains useful information.
An art party like no other!
One thing about the folks at Buffalo Arts Studios (BAS): they know how to throw a art party. Their triennial event is legendary. Plates and Pasta is inspired. Now the creative folks at BAS have dreamed up another crowd-pleasing multi-faceted experience where you can also acquire some very economically priced fine art.
Live on Five
This Saturday, March 14, 7–11 p.m. BAS takes over the fifth floor of Tri-Main Center so visitors can experience 100,000 square feet of live music, mural painting, and art-making demos. They can also peruse more than forty open artist studios, have a couple beers (or wine), and enjoy cheap eats of the lip-smacking ethnic variety. It’s a great opportunity to hang with friends, or just wander; you never know what you’ll see.
Art as event
Guests will start their night at Buffalo Arts Studio, Suite 500, where over 600 original, 5" x 5" artworks by many of Western New York's most well-known artists will be for sale for only $25 each. That’s a low price for original work. Click here for a peek at some of what artists have been up to. We would love to give the names of all the participating artists, but it’s an insanely long list. Most are familiar artists from the Buffalo area, with some emerging up-and comers and a smidgen of out-of-towners.
So how does it work?
Right, exactly. How will the folks at BAS manage the sale of over 600 works to hundreds of buyers in some sort of orderly fashion? They’ve been working hard on that very question, and they have a plan:
Doors open at 7 p.m., and as people enter with tickets, they’ll proceed to Suite 500 where the 600+ works are hung alphabetically. Guests receive a purchaser card with four stickers. Ten guests enter at a time and place stickers on the tags next to the works they want. That marks them as sold. When guests are done choosing, a handler takes it from there. You’ll pay with plastic, cash, or check and pose for a photo op. Guests can come back again later to buy more after everyone has had a chance.
Then, enjoy the party
More than a dozen musical acts are featured—including , Pine Fever, Nickel City String Band, , and others—and several artists are painting murals throughout the evening.
Over twenty suites on the fifth floor will be open to the public, including interactive activities and unique retail presented by creative businesses like 26 Shirts, Store 716, and You Know Games. In addition, service organizations like VOICE Buffalo, Learning, Inc., and Full Circle Family Services are showing artwork and activities created by their employees, volunteers, and clients.
Attendance supports BAS!
The $20 entrance fee covers all Live on Five entertainment and helps support the exhibitions, public art, and educational programs of BAS, including its core function of providing affordable studio space and exposure for local visual artists. (You can roam the studios at the event.) Tickets can be purchased by clicking here. You can also view the complete food and entertainment lineup, including the list of participating artists.
Long Story Short is an opinion column by artist and educator Bruce Adams, a longtime contributor to Buffalo Spree.
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