Over the past couple of years, I have become increasingly fascinated with social media and its impact on society. Social media has the capability to facilitate and amplify communication, but it also has the potential to create divisive behavior by reinforcing preconceived biases.
One of the ways that social media spreads its messages is by encouraging people to forward messages including content provided by the originator. This is particularly effective because people tend to believe information sent by trusted friends.
For example, last year I received numerous emails from friends that were derogatory of immigrants generally and of Mexicans in particular. The contents were racist smears originated by Russian trolls. Since receiving these messages, I have been perplexed about why otherwise principled people would willingly send them.
During the Thanksgiving weekend, a friend forwarded me a message containing a video file that purportedly was made in 1956. The video, which claimed to predict the future, appeared authentic. Among the predictions were the emergence of the internet, mass transportation, and of course, a pandemic.
Clearly the video closely mimicked the features of a 1950s era newsreel film, but if you looked closely, some of the items shown were of a 1930s vintage. Although it was highly entertaining, I suspected that it was a not an authentic 1950s newsreel.
I thought that it would be an interesting experiment to forward the message along with the narrative “I thought you might enjoy this. I presume it is legitimate; if not, it is a pretty funny fake.” Because its content was not of a nature that attempted to influence people’s opinions, I thought forwarding it to others was relatively benign. I was hoping to elicit responses from recipients.
I forwarded the message to 73 people. As of this writing, I received responses from 34 of them. Seven of those respondents researched the meme and correctly told me that it is a fake, noting that the video was actually created in February 2020. (For the record, Signal Editor Tim Whyte was one of the seven.) Another 16 responded by saying this could not be true.
However, nine people responded indicating that they believed the video was authentic — usually remarking that it was amazing that someone could have demonstrated such foresight in 1956. Two responded by wishing me a happy Thanksgiving without commenting about the video.
Clearly this is not a scientific sample, so it is hard to demonstrably use this evidence as scientific proof of anything. However, anecdotally it is somewhat disturbing that nearly a third of the people responding found the video credible.
Each of those nine people were longtime friends who I believe trusted my judgement. (These folks may have lost their trust after this experience.) The quality of the video undoubtedly reinforced the illusion of authenticity. The video may also have reinforced the biases of those people because the lifestyle portrayed was similar to what is portrayed on the 1950s sitcoms, which shapes the views of many about life in the 1950s.
As Paul Simon sang in his 1970s song, “Kodachrome,” our memories of the past seem to be remembered in color as we tend to remember the best of times, but everything looks worse in the reality of black and white. In other words, reality may not match our memories of the “good old days.” We put the problems of the earlier era behind us, so today’s problems seem more challenging. I am sure that this mentality played into the perceptions of those nine respondents.
A substantial number of the recipients are CPAs, who, like journalists, have a professional responsibility to be as accurate as possible. Consequently, they have developed a professional skepticism, which causes them to challenge, rather than blindly accept, information. None of the nine people who believed the video was authentic are CPAs.
So, what should we learn from this exercise? There are three questions we should consider when we receive information through social media.
First, whence did the information originate and why did the originator disseminate the information?
Second, was the information designed to appeal to or reinforce our unconscious bias?
Finally, is the information factually based? If so, does it stretch the truth?
In his book, “The Know It All Society,” Michael Lynch describes how, throughout human history, opportunists have subverted objectivity and reason by presenting information in a biased manner designed to disrupt society. Today, technology facilitates this phenomenon on a scale never before seen. We are inundated with data and we tend to gravitate toward information that makes us feel better.
This is naturally divisive and impedes our ability to make optimal decisions. Just as Kodachrome created illusions, social media is frequently illusory.
Therefore, we must look at the black-and-white version of the information presented by considering those three questions before we accept information spread through social media.
Jim de Bree is a Valencia resident. The video is available at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-1a_0nULp5o.