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How Did Twitter Become a “Virus of the Mind”?

A libertarian law professor reflects on the poisonous atmosphere and proposed remedies

In the wake of tragedies, calls for crackdowns on new social media are becoming routine. Who wouldn’t sympathize, in principle, when social media lead to suicide?:

A 16-year-old girl uses her social media account to post a question: Should I kill myself? Sixty-nine percent of people who responded said yes. So she did.

This isn’t the plot of a twisted new movie. This, according to a report coming from Malaysia, actually happened. The teenager posted a poll on Instagram, “Really Important, Help Me Choose D/L,” (D = death, L = life), and she jumped off the roof of a building shortly after the results came in. Some in Malaysia want those who voted “yes” prosecuted for abetting the suicide of a minor, which in Malaysia is punishable by 20 years in prison or the death penalty.

Alex Berezow, “What Sort Of Evil Person Encourages A Teenager To Commit Suicide?” at American Council on Science and Health

But then we hear stories like “I tweeted out my phone number—and rediscovered humanity,” and “How Twitter became my sacred space” (both from Wired) and the picture appears more complex.

In the middle are many for whom social media can be a boon until overuse makes it a bane. PC Mag offers to help us wean ourselves from our smartphones. Evidence is emerging that limiting time on social media helps kids improve their grades. Five years ago, it came out that Steve Jobs and other Silicon Valley greats were actually low tech parents. Whether they encouraged others to do so or not, the tech billionaires recognized and avoided the dangers for their own kids.

But what exactly are the dangers? What’s different today from the cafeteria gossip mills of the past? In an excerpt from his upcoming book, The Social Media Upheaval (May 28, 2019), University of Tennessee law professor Glenn Harlan Reynolds explains why he considers Twitter, in particular, a virus of the mind:

Social media is addictive by design. The companies involved put enormous amounts of thought and effort into making it that way, so that people will be glued to their screens. As much as they’re selling anything, they’re selling the ‘dopamine hit’ that people experience when they get a ‘like’ or a ‘share’ or some other response to their action. We’ve reached the point where there are not merely articles in places like Psychology Today and The Washington Post on dealing with ‘social media addiction’, but even scholarly papers in medical journals, with titles like ‘The relationship between addictive use of social media and video games and symptoms of psychiatric disorders: A large scale cross-sectional study’. One of the consulting companies in the business of making applications addictive is even named Dopamine Labs, making no bones about what’s going on.

Glenn Harlan Reynolds, “Twitter is a virus of the mind” at Spectator USA

Using engineering terminology, he makes the point that, whereas the blogosphere has been a loosely coupled system where craziness in one venue had little impact on another, new social media are tightly coupled systems, prone to maximal disruption:

The ‘retweet’, ‘comment’, and ‘like’ buttons are immediate. A retweet sends a posting, no matter how angry or misinformed, to all the retweeter’s followers, who can then do the same to their followers, and so on, in a runaway chain reaction. Unlike blogs, little to no thought is required, and in practice very few people even follow the link (if there is one) to ‘read the whole thing’. According to a study by computer scientists at Columbia University and the French National Institute, 59 percent of people who share a link on social media don’t read the underlying story. I’m honestly surprised the number isn’t higher.

Glenn Harlan Reynolds, “Twitter is a virus of the mind” at Spectator USA

One outcome, he observes is that people are more likely to believe and spread misinformation they hear on social media. Ironically, Twitter—used widely by social and political leaders—is particularly bad for “thoughtless polarization” which spreads like a virus into the majority of the population that does not use Twitter. He himself left Twitter (“a breeding ground for thoughtlessness and contempt”) in the fall of 2018 but he does not see that as a solution for political discourse because “With Twitter, you can participate and be driven crazy – or you can stay sane, and lose influence. That’s a bad trade-off.”

Rather than regulating the content of social media, he thinks government should break up the tech monopolies that own them. Free from the need to produce better products to ward off competitors, they are free to devote their time to seeking political influence:

Although antitrust is out of fashion, the huge tech companies constitute interlocking monopolies in various fields, and often support one another against competitors – as Paypal, for example, cut off money transfers to YouTube competitor BitChute, and Twitter competitor Gab…

We’ve now reached the point when even Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes is calling for a breakup. Maybe it’s time.

Glenn Harlan Reynolds, “Twitter is a virus of the mind” at Spectator USA

We’ve probably only heard the beginnings of that debate.

See also: Twitter doesn’t just seem out of control. It actually is.

and

No, Twitter is not the New Awful. It’s the Old Awful back for more. It’s the Town Without Pity we all tried to get away from.


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How Did Twitter Become a “Virus of the Mind”?