Photo: Wikimedia Commons

In a recent comment chain on the EU’s BlogActiv site I found myself engaged in a challenging conversation with someone who found it completely inconceivable that anyone else in the world could possibly share the same thoughts as the Risk-Monger, my blogging persona. She had even gone so far as to declare that I had fabricated the positive comments in my blog and demanded that I produce their IP numbers to prove they were not fictional. She showed no interest in discussing ideas that did not conform to her way of thinking.

This is not unusual – we are becoming more and more incapable of accepting that others (that is, others we would deem of a reasonable intelligence) might think differently from us, and I blame the rising influence of social media for strengthening such prejudices.

What social media (Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Tumblr, blogs …) does is allow us to surround ourselves in silos we feel comfortable with (we preach to our own choirs) and tune ourselves out to any other realities we are not interested in. We are no longer all watching the same evening news or exposing ourselves to similar information sources, thus we are no longer starting from society-wide baselines for discussions (or even coming in contact with people who think differently from ourselves). If I think climate change is a hoax and read nothing but experts and websites, 24/7, that confirm this view, then it doesn’t take much for me to be convinced that this debate is all one great big conspiracy. The same holds true with anti-GMO movements, vegan websites, anti-lobbying groups …

As Nassim Nicholas Taleb highlighted in the Black Swan, we have an overabundance of data at our disposal, so we select the data that fit our preconceptions and disregard the rest. This is not an act of stupid, manipulated people. Most of us, whether we are climate scientists, industry managers, environmental activists or policy-makers, have a tendency to find comfort in being right to the point of a willingness to let certain points persuade us. It is called confirmation bias. Social media acts as a support mechanism to ensure that our bias and prejudice seem natural and benign.

Various social media tools allow us to like, follow, curate or favourite things and people that fit well in our comfort zones, reinforce our ideas and make us feel good about our prejudices. We have become editors of our societal narratives, and as we surround ourselves with like-minded individuals, have become increasingly intolerant to those not so inclined to think like us. As we surround ourselves in our social silos, whether they be with neo-conservatives, liberals, Goths, long-distance runners, environmentalists, pro-lifers or animal rights activists, our view of the world becomes limited, narrowed and faux-objectified.

This is an aberration of Kant’s dual approach to objectivity. Immanuel Kant recognised two concepts of objective – objective as that which is related to truth – a fact in the absolute sense (in the tradition of Platonic Forms) and objective as that which is not subjective. If I think of something (for instance, my wife is beautiful), it is subjective. If a certain number of people agree with me, it then becomes objective (in the sense of being more than just my subjective perception). But this type of objectivity does not make it truth in the absolute sense. The problem with social media is that many think their support networks objectify in the absolute sense.

If I make a remark on a social media page, and 20, 50 … 300 people agree, then I am emboldened to think that this idea is true (absolutely). If I have a thought on an event that may seem borderline improper (intolerant or offensive), but someone else states it, and then others like or share it, this thought is mainstreamed and there is no longer a question, within my silo, of it being unacceptable. And the more people agree with something, the more plausible (objective) it sounds.

I spoke with many students of mine who attended the recent global March against Monsanto. They have surrounded themselves in silos that confirmed the view (as truth) that GMOs are inherently dangerous (there is no question or need to discuss that), that Monsanto is an evil enterprise intent on poisoning humanity and the environment, and that if enough people come out on the streets, we can ensure that this company (which as far as I know, has broken no laws) can be eliminated.

These students only watch movies like Monsantoland or Seeds of Death, ask rhetorical questions and share doomsday scenarios.  They retweet or share all sorts of information from little known sources, cite studies that they all agree on, and could not imagine anyone who would possibly consider defending biotech companies or GMOs. It is through their well-trumpeted benevolence that they are saving society by eradicating Monsanto from the face of the earth. To someone outside of their silos, the idea that a company could just be removed because a certain minority do not like what they do, would come across as absolutely absurd, but in their world, it makes perfect sense and is continually reaffirmed. These worlds rarely collide, which makes policy-making a bit more challenging since there seems to be less and less listening in our “consensus processes”.

Of course the most attractive feature of these social media tools is the ease with which messages, even fact-free ones, can spread virally. When Sum of Us started a petition against GMOs related to their spoof story (OK, I referred to it like it was: an outright lie) on Monsanto winning the Nobel Prize for Agriculture (there is no such prize), it was shared, retweeted and blogged virally within hours. It hit its peak just in time to tap into the outrage to get a few more people on the streets for the next viral campaign (a week later): the global March against Monsanto.

Even without facts, social media can create outrage and attract millions of militant volunteers (“Share if you Care”). Who is responsible for the misleading, inaccurate and politically motivated social media campaigns that undermine trust? For those who are only concerned about winning (read  Chris Rose’s blog, where winning fairly never seems to come into his rules of the game), social media is perfect. And if you need a push, the militant, ‘rent-a-virus’ mercenaries at Avaaz can get you millions of supporters in a heart-beat (2.5 million “experts” signed on to save the bees from neonics over one weekend). Industry, government and science could never dream of wielding such “social power”.

This comes back to what the Risk-Monger has often referred to as “commonality” – the manufactured perception of consensus. With commonality, we present the view that we all agree on something (GMOs are poison, big companies have evil intentions, certain synthetic chemicals cause diseases or that our government cannot be trusted…), and this perception is hammered regularly with the caveat that we must act to change the situation, with no more need for discussions, research or analysis. Social media tools are ideal for presenting the impression that we all agree. But not all the world agrees with these ideas; not all the world follows the same groups or accesses information within the same silos, and this is a good thing. We need robust debate, not fascism.

Like smartphones that were supposed to provide us with access, in the palms of our hands, to the entire wealth of knowledge available to humanity (and with which we spend most of our time sharing “funny cat pictures”), social media were supposed to open our world up to greater social interaction. In the end, we are narrowing our scopes, and hence narrowing our minds.

A lot of people think differently from the Risk-Monger, fortunately, and I spend much of my time studying this. Often I learn new things and I do try to be open-minded, but as I see how some are using social media to abuse and manipulate how people think, I am aware how this emerging communication tool is open to misuse. So I have decided to join them, and start a Risk-Monger Facebook page, where I plan to highlight some of the great declarations on social media, provide shorter commentaries and try to provide some “other thinking” to interfere with the intended silo building.

David Zaruk writes from Belgium. He is an EU risk and science communications specialist. 

David Zaruk writes from Belgium. He has been an EU risk and science communications specialist since 2001, active in EU policy events from REACH and SCALE to the Pesticides Directive, from Science in Society...