Recode echoes a warning published in PNAS and signed by 17 researchers in fields as disparate as climate science, biology, and philosophy. They’re convinced that the rapid rise of social media has such a strong effect on human beings – and the way we react to health threats, weather disasters, and other problems – that studying Facebook, Twitter, and other platforms should be considered a “crisis discipline”:
A crisis discipline is a field in which scientists across different fields work quickly to address an urgent societal problem — like how conservation biology tries to protect endangered species or climate science research aims to stop global warming.
The paper argues that our lack of understanding about the collective behavioral effects of new technology is a danger to democracy and scientific progress. For example, the paper says that tech companies have “fumbled their way through the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, unable to stem the ‘infodemic’ of misinformation” that has hindered widespread acceptance of masks and vaccines. The authors warn that if left misunderstood and unchecked, we could see unintended consequences of new technology contributing to phenomena such as “election tampering, disease, violent extremism, famine, racism, and war.”
Recode spoke with the lead author of the paper, Joe Bak-Coleman, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Washington Center for an Informed Public , as well as co-author Carl Bergstrom, a biology professor at the University of Washington, to better understand this call for a paradigm shift….
…Just as one example: A paper — a poorly done research paper — can come out suggesting that hydroxychloroquine might be a treatment for Covid. And in a matter of days, you have world leaders promoting it, and people struggling to get [this medicine], and it being no longer available to people who need it for treatment of other conditions. Which is actually a serious health problem.
So you can have these bits of misinformation that explode at unprecedented velocity in ways that they wouldn’t have prior to this information ecosystem.
[Now], you can create large communities of people that hold constellations of beliefs that are not grounded in reality, such as [the conspiracy theory] QAnon. You can have ideas like anti-vaccination ideas spread in new ways. You can create polarization in new ways.
And [you can] create an information environment where misinformation seems to spread organically. And also [these communities can] be extremely vulnerable to targeted disinformation. We don’t even know the scope of that yet.
I was enormously optimistic about the internet in the ’90s. [I thought] this really was going to remove the gatekeepers and allow people who did not have financial, social, and political capital to get their stories out there.
And it’s certainly possible for all that to be true and for the concerns that we express in our paper to also be correct.
Democratizing information has had profound effects, especially for marginalized, underrepresented communities. It gives them the ability to rally online, have a platform, and have a voice. And that is fantastic. At the same time, we have things like genocide of Rohingya Muslims and an insurrection at the Capitol happening as well. And I hope that it’s a false statement to say we have to have those growing pains to have the benefits.