In recognition of the Canadian winter and the polar vortex, today I’m going to use the concept of wind chill to discuss science communication.
Recently, a 2016 article by Vox has been popping up in my social media feeds. TItled Wind chill is a terrible, misleading metric, it discusses how, over the years, a wind chill index has been replaced by the concept of a temperature equivalent, and it argues that this temperature equivalent obscures as much about the weather conditions as it reveals. The article goes on to suggest that we do away with wind chill altogether, and instead adopt more accurate metrics of the temperature, such as the Universal Temperature Climate Index.
These companies make money by ensuring we spend as much time on their platforms as possible so they use various tricks like creating an illusion of choice, hijacking our natural tendencies as social animals, and producing the compelling draw of variable rewards to capture and hold our attention. In his article, Harris makes suggestions for why each of these tactics is problematic for people, community, and society, and he also suggests different ways we could design and approach technology in our lives. I’d like to build on his ideas specifically with respect to weaponized misinformation and propaganda. Harris doesn’t really get into this in his article, but I’d like to suggest why I think the hacking of the human mind has left us far more vulnerable to this type of message manipulation.
When social media platforms hack our brains for attention, they have also super charged the propaganda, misinformation and black ops tactics that were already being deployed at a slower grassroots scale. Just as we are wired to seek variable rewards from social media notifications, we are wired to respond to emotionally charged (particularly negative) posts. The human mind, evolutionary speaking, is optimized to ignore the mundane but attend to threats to ourselves or our tribes. Thus when we see a viral video showing a confrontation between two groups, one of whom we identify with, we will be likely to pay attention to the video and then share it with our tribe without thinking critically about what is not shown on the video.
This type of uncritical engagement with media is not particularly new either. As anyone who has taken a media studies class can tell you, we tend to trust what we see with our own eyes, which is why video is so successful a medium for building and reinforcing cultural norms. But as social media platforms use popularity and auto play to hold our attention, they also facilitate the spread of video, increasing the global scale at which they can effectively influence people’s views.
So as Harris points out, we are all being hacked for our attention. And as the companies hack our brains, they pave the way for propagandists to do so as well. This adds additional weight to Harris’ call for a social media bill of rights, and I would add, suggests that we need to carefully think through the question of regulation for platforms and whether we need to develop an international and enforceable standard of practice.
Information alone is not enough to change behavior. As the image above shows, if people have good reason to behave a certain way (in this case to cut the corner across a grassy lawn rather than taking a purpose built path on the sidewalk), they will keep behaving in that way, even if told otherwise (please use sidewalk).