Psychology and neuroscience throw light on the harms that online social media can cause. They can also help us to devise remedies.
The Ottoline Club met on 1 st May 2018 in the Archive to hear Fintan Nagle speak on “Social Media, Online Conversation and Cognitive Neuroscience”. Those present were: Fintan Nagle (Lecturer in Psychology), Anthony Grayling (Master), Catherine Brown (Faculty of English), Phil Hunter (Faculty of Law), Matthew Batstone (Dean of Careers), Naomi Goulder (Faculty of Philosophy), Ioannis Votsis (Faculty of Philosophy) and David Mitchell (Faculty of Philosophy).
Fintan was speaking, he acknowledged straight away, on a subject – the evolution of online social media – about which he has strong feelings. It is also a subject about which he has acquired a great deal of fascinating information and to which he has applied his own expertise in psychology and neuroscience. And as he briefly illustrated at the end of the talk, all this has had a practical upshot too, in the shape of a recently launched online conversation platform, Lyra, designed not to be harmful in the ways that Fintan argued that Facebook, Twitter and many others of the second generation of social media sites have shown themselves to be.
Some of the harms for which Fintan gave evidence are harms to network users individually. He mentioned addiction to updates, and to novelty of content generally, with consequent fragmentation of attention; the ‘chilling’ effect of being conscious of communicating with large pooled audiences; and the exacerbation of problems of harassment and bullying and concerns with body image. These can obviously be particularly severe for adolescents, and Fintan also cited evidence that greater intensity of social media use is associated with higher levels of loneliness and depression among the young. There are other harmful effects that are naturally thought of as damage not simply to individuals but to collective or social assets, and in particular to general trust and trustworthiness in communications. Social networks, said Fintan, not only exploit in their algorithms features of the psychology of attention, they themselves amount to a social analogue of the brain’s attention system, in that they have a large role in determining what it is that receives society’s attention; and the way they play this message-selecting role has become increasingly
What is it about the dominant types of platform that renders them damaging in these various ways? Interfaces have evolved from being like tools for the user to being much more like products. The user has very imperfect control in respect of whose writings they read, and in what order, and likewise in respect of who reads what they write. A less damaging type of platform would foster private group conversations as the main units of browsing. Such conversations, Fintan proposed, should each one have an owner who controls participation, and all participants should be able to know who the other participants are. These and other points are incorporated into the design principles underlying Lyra.
Fintan’s general theme that social media are not at all bound to be toxic was endorsed by Matthew, who remarked as a parent how in recent years gaming has been integrated into online social activity. Matthew also noted the promising emergence of decentralised data management services, though he conceded Fintan’s point that these have yet to become really user-friendly for the layperson. Other reflections were offered on the effect of social media on teenage girls in particular. Self-harming was pretty well unknown in the seventies, Fintan said, but then became widespread after being featured in magazines; similarly, in Hong Kong, anorexia emerged suddenly in 1982 as a result of figuring in a soap opera. Modern social media have seriously exacerbated such patterns.
The conversation then turned to the problematic category of ‘fake news’. Fintan favoured requiring that to be accredited as a publisher one must place a fact-checking box next to each news story, but also suggested the need for a category between those of publisher and platform, such as perhaps ‘information curator’. In any case an independent fact-checking body should be established. Then, in response to some observations of Anthony’s about the security services, and the ubiquity of state-sponsored ‘nudging’ in cyberspace, Catherine spoke up for the democratising effects of social media, and urged concern about tendencies towards state censorship of Twitter accounts and the like. Anthony in reply sought to contrast censorship with the enforcement of transparency. This led into some lively debate, with Anthony maintaining that the tsunami of online opinion constitutes a wholly new level of threat to people’s chances of achieving reliable and well-informed judgement about current affairs, and Catherine and Matthew much less disposed to see our situation in this respect as radically novel.