Social Network Opinion Bias (SNOB) and why it’s so harmful to ideas

Centuries ago, the majority of the population was illiterate. Instead of reading text, information was primarily passed down through spoken word.  Any recorded history could only be interpreted by the privileged few blessed with the ability to decipher scribbles on parchment. Written words were wielded as a form of power and influence. As Eric Hoffer states in The True Believer:

The men of words are of diverse types. They can be priests, scribes, prophets, writers, artists, professors, students and intellectuals in general. Where, as in China, reading and writing is a difficult art, mere literacy can give one the status of a man of words. A similar situation prevailed in ancient Egypt, where the art of picture writing was the monopoly of a minority.

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During the Dark Ages, the Catholic Church was the dominant scholarly body in the Western world. Much of the power exercised by the Church was the consequence of two factors: i) the masses were unable to read, so the Bible was interpreted by the few learned religious leaders in the community; and ii) books were expensive at the time. This created a culture of blind obedience due to the suppression of free thought. Since ideas were communicated through spoken word, alternative modes of thinking that questioned the ideas of the church or other dominant schools of thought could not easily spread.

That changed when Johannes Gutenberg invented the printing press in 1440; ideas could now be recorded, mass-produced, and distributed. The distinct class system and lack of literacy present in the general population still prevented the masses from owning books, but ideas produced by the educated could be printed and distributed throughout the continent. Access to information incited an entire cultural revolution in Europe:

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“The printing press precipitated 200 years of chaos. Moving from a world where the Catholic Church was sort of the organizing political force to the Treaty of Westphalia where we finally knew what the new unit was: the nation-state.” – Clay Shirky

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The sheer volume of content produced today is staggering. Reports estimate that 90% of all of the data that ever existed has been produced in the last two years. Despite the volume of information produced each day, our time to consume it is still limited. Our sources of information are even more limited in scope. Sixty-three percent of users on Facebook and Twitter use the social media platforms as their primary news source, an increase of 16 and 11 percent from 2013 numbers, respectively. As more of us consume news from similar sources, our views become more homogenized. Like any news source, social media feeds are prone to their own biases for what type content is featured.

facebook-trendsBested only by YouTube and Google, some of the most coveted real estate on the internet can be found in the top right hand corner of the Facebook homepage. The trending section of the Facebook homepage is where the most popular stories in each user’s realm are listed. There’s only one problem: these topics are not listed by objective popularity or importance to the user.

Instead, these topics are carefully controlled by a team of contract journalists. They restrict linking to certain news sources and favour certain publications over others. Like its more oft-visited rival, Twitter also has notorious problems exhibiting bias. The prevalent bias on both platforms presents a troubling scenario that is only compounded by the algorithm responsible for constructing the user’s news feeds, and specifically, the actions of the users themselves.

What happens when the source of most of our daily information is subjected to a predetermined filtering process? You get “Social Network Opinion Bias” (SNOB): a biasing of your opinion based on the influence of your social network and the filtered information shared within it. Most of our online domains are echo chambers, where only one school of thought is permitted and those who disagree are shunned and exiled from the group. On the surface, this doesn’t seem like a big problem – we tend to associate with others who share our views and values –  so what’s wrong with always being in agreement with one another?

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The now defunct West England Fat Stock and Poultry Exhibition featured a competition where participants were presented with a challenge to guess the weight of the featured livestock specimen. In the 1907 edition of the fair, almost 800 participants submitted ballots to try their luck at estimating the weight of an ox. The crowd was composed of a variety of individuals from around the area, including those related to the agricultural industry like farmers and butchers, in addition to various citizens from all other facets of the community.

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Sir Francis Galton and the famed ox from the 1907 West England Fat Stock and Poultry show.

Also in attendance was famed statistician Sir Francis Galton, who was interested in measuring the accuracy of the group’s estimates in relation to the real weight of the ox. After analysing the estimates of the participants, Galton arrived at a stunning discovery: the dressed weight of the ox was reported at 1198 lbs, and the average guess of the 787 ballots amounted to 1207 lbs, an error of just 0.8 percent.

Amazed at the accuracy of the crowd’s estimate, Galton published his findings in the prestigious journal Nature, highlighting “the Wisdom of Crowds” as the reason the estimate was so accurate. According to Galton in his original paper: “This result is, I think, more creditable to the trust-worthiness of a democratic judgement than might have been expected.

WisecrowdsIn his 2004 work The Wisdom of Crowds, New Yorker journalist James Surowiecki describes the advantages of making decisions in large groups, provided 4 criteria are met: diversity of opinion, independence, decentralization, and aggregation. The study that Galton published had a crowd that met these four criteria, and as a result was able to make an accurate judgement on the weight of the ox.

Surowiecki published The Wisdom of Crowds before social media was established as a primary news outlet for many North Americans. This makes it all the more fascinating given how the concepts still apply. Because of the heavy selection bias present in online social networks, whether on social media, subreddits, or other internet forums for like-minded individuals, unbiased group discussion is almost impossible to achieve.

Online social networks frequently bring out the worst in people. The power of online anonymity does wonders for the sharp decrease in the civility of discussions held online. Additionally, because the discussions are more public, people are actually more likely to shame or belittle others in the discussion whose opinion they view as wrong. Negative online discussion tends to be driven by people who score high on measures of sadism.

What’s more, according to research by Wharton professor Jonah Berger, the number one predictor of a content’s ability to spread is if it incites feelings of anger. We’re more likely to see things that made our friends angry, which makes us angry since we tend to associate with like-minded individuals within our social networks. This anger generated online within our social networks has led to increased hostility towards those who do not share our views.

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Since the 1970s, and particularly in the past two decades, society has become increasingly more rigid in their politicisation. Those who primarily identify with the political right have become entrenched in their positions on numerous political issues; the same is true for those on the left. The two sides rarely mix in our current culture, and when an individual enters a group who holds views that oppose the majority, they are almost always subject to a unilateral group dismissal.

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Dr. Jonathan Haidt delivering a TED talk.

Jonathan Haidt, a social psychologist who teaches business ethics at NYU’s Stern School of Business, has focused much of his research programme around the morals that motivate political choices. Dr. Haidt’s research has determined that the political choices of individuals are becoming increasingly tied to their moral compasses.

Between the two political vantage points there are three shared moral dimensions: harm and care, fairness and justice, and liberty versus oppression. For example, both the left and right are opposed to oppression, but the source of that oppression differs between the two sides. The left believes that corporations and the very wealthy are the oppressors, while the right associates oppression with the actions of government.

In addition to the three shared moral dimensions, those on the right are motivated by three additional moral values: loyalty, authority, and sanctity. These values can explain the stereotypical beliefs commonly held amongst those associated with the right. For example, the increased prevalence of Christianity on the right is influenced by loyalty to God, who holds authority in lives of Christians, who value purity and sanctity with sacraments like baptism and marriage. Since morals are sacred, guiding principles in our lives, our political views become entrenched in our sacred values as our morals become more closely tied to them.

A leading hypothesis as to why our morals – and as a result, our political stances – have diverged so drastically is due to personality dispositions associated with each side. In general, liberals are more open-minded, creative and curious, whereas conservatives are more orderly, conventional, and better organized.

Research has supported the notion that social media has increased the broadcast range of those who exhibit more attention-seeking behaviour. Social media does not make people more narcissistic; it merely amplifies the voices of those who already are. Most social media users are fairly passive, so online engagement tends to be dominated by those who are already emotionally charged on certain topics. This is why online discussions often get so heated; only those on opposite ends of the spectrum decide to engage. The silent majority caught in the middle are left rolling their eyes or burying their heads in the sand.

In addition to our personal biases becoming more prevalent, there has not been a unifying social factor in our society in decades. In the early 20th century, two World Wars helped to unite North American society and lessen the impact of political differences. The Cold War similarly produced a struggle of opposing ideologies that produced an epic moral conflict – us versus them; communism versus democracy; Good versus Evil. After the Soviet Union fell in 1989, political divergence intensified on the path to its current extreme.

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Recent studies suggest that implicit and unconscious biases across political groups rival those present between races. In other words, in our efforts to stamp out racism and other forms of intolerance, we have unintentionally created a new hatred, only this time it exists between political ideologies. Since politics is a beliefs system, the war being fought is an intellectual one. Because of how highly intelligence is valued in our current society, each side attempts to dismiss the other’s ideas as stupid in an effort to undermine their intellectual credibility. This shuts down any chance for a healthy debate, or at the very least, social cohesion.

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Dr. Robert D. Putnam

Civic engagement has been on the decline in North America in recent decades. Since the 1960s, voter turnouts and active participation in various civic organizations like the PTA, League of Women Voters, and the Boy Scouts have all declined. In his 2000 work Bowling Alone, Harvard Professor of Public Policy Dr. Robert Putnam summarizes the reasons for the decline in “social capital” in America. In an example that gave the book its title, Putnam examines how membership in bowling leagues across America has decreased, but the number of people who go bowling has actually increased. He posits that civic engagement has so sharply declined is because individuals have become isolated through a variety of cultural shifts.

North America moved to the suburbs during the post-war boom in the 1950s. Instead of living in the city close to their colleagues and friends, many North Americans opted to move outside the city centre to a new home. While this did provide comfort and larger living spaces, it also brought increased isolation, increased dependence on the automobile for transportation, and increased stress as a result of commuting.

Entire cities have become “bedroom communities”. Ironically, cities were originally conceived as a way to bring inhabitants closer together for social interaction and work; not drive them further apart. Public policy that favoured suburban development prized the wants of individual over the needs of the community. Putnam’s data reveal an unsettling conclusion: as the size of a city increases, the percentage of the population active in the community decreases.

Technology has also played a factor. Membership and participation in many organizations is largely digital. Thanks to technology, the reach of many organizations has drastically increased, yet actual engagement has decreased. In-person discussions proceed far differently. We can detect the emotions, voice intonations, and body language of the individual we are speaking with, lending us to be more receptive to their speech. The problem with isolation in the suburbs has been met by increasing the number of screens in each home. Unfortunately, this has created a generation of stressed out, lonely individuals who exhibit increased animosity towards others, especially strangers on the internet.

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“Questioning our own motives, and our own process, is critical to a skeptical and scientific outlook. We must realize that the default mode of human psychology is to grab onto comforting beliefs for purely emotional reasons, and then to justify those beliefs to ourselves with post-hoc rationalizations”. Steven Novella, Yale Neurologist and author of Your Deceptive Mind

In 1984, George Orwell predicted that in a dystopian future, conspicuous public rage would not only be common, but be required by all citizens. Our current society is addicted to outrage. Jonathan Haidt’s research on morals has suggested that humans enjoy moral superiority over others. Those on the left take solace in feeling smug when they confront those on the right over issues like gun control or climate change, and those on the right feel vindicated when they ridicule liberals for government scandals. What’s most grotesque is that, according to Haidt, we actually get a form of pleasure from the anger that drives our moral crusade.

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Ideas are powerful, but unfortunately, the sources of most of our ideas are biased, providing an incomplete picture of the whole issue. Any good scientist knows not to accept the conclusions of one study as fact; there needs to be replication and deeper investigation into the question. Even if all signs point to a certain answer, it is irresponsible to suggest that result as irrefutable.

This is the basis behind seeking a diverse range of opinions in order to gain a more complete perspective. The rigid politicization of our world has made this quite difficult, as the coupling of our morals to political views has scripted our behaviour within our respective social networks. We risk alienating ourselves if we practice any form of ideological dissent. The decline in civic engagement has contributed to this moral coupling of politics and ideologies; the activities that used to unite citizens are quickly disappearing, driving us further apart.

Free speech is one of the most important liberties that inhabitants of Western society are privileged to express. Unfortunately, due to the systems at play in our current society, we are far too selective in how we gather facts and interpret ideas. It is imperative that we strive to remain balanced in our approach to interpreting and evaluating issues and ideas presented to us. Our brains are hardwired to make objectively poor decisions, so it is our responsibility to try to combat our own biases to remain objective in our reasoning. In a society that increasingly claims to value diversity and inclusiveness, it is quite perplexing when the most important type of diversity for a healthy society – ideas – goes largely ignored.

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