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Misinformation Outrage Part 4: Social Media Makes it Worse

In this fourth installment of the series, Teri Kanefield explores the influence of social media on combating misinformation and conspiracy theories.
Published:November 9, 2023

*Published with the generous permission of Teri Kanefield. Read all of her writing here.

By Teri Kanefield

Part 4: Social Media Makes it Worse

Recall from Part 2 that, beginning in the 1980s and accelerating in the 1990s, mass media fragmented. People found themselves in what we might call partisan information ecosystems in which they were offered content that would appeal to them. This fragmenting made it easier for conspiracy theories and misinformation to spread. It also pushed partisans toward more extreme views, thus causing people who were less engaged with politics to ignore politics altogether.

The Internet and social media then fractured audiences into even smaller units of like-minded partisans.

Historians have compared the invention of the Internet to the printing press. From Yale Professor Timothy Snyder: “New media always cause tremendous disruptions. The printing press led to 150 years of religious wars.”

While the printing press didn’t cause the Protestant Reformation, it was the most important driver of the Protestant Reformation by allowing for the widespread dissemination of new information, including misinformation (errors), disinformation (deliberate lies), and propaganda that people were not equipped to evaluate.

The Pew Research Center says this:

Nearly all the content people see on social media is chosen not by human editors but rather by computer programs using massive quantities of data about each user to deliver content that he or she might find relevant or engaging.

Algorithms help good jokes, cute pet videos, and clever quips go viral, which provides a lot of fun. Algorithms also allow groups of like-minded partisans to find each other. Based on who you already follow and the kind of content you engage with, the algorithm will suggest other people to follow. If you find someone on social media who you admire, you can see who that person follows and you can also follow them. Pretty soonbecause of the content being served to you by means of algorithmsyou can find yourself in a large group of thousands, tens of thousands, or even millions of like-minded people who are continually confirming each other’s biases.

Confirmation Bias refers to people’s tendency to process information by looking for or interpreting, information that is consistent with their existing beliefs. This biased approach to information gathering is largely unintentional, and it results in a person ignoring information that is inconsistent with their beliefs.

Algorithms also allow content and news to be targeted to individuals with pinpoint precision. Here is an example of how misconceptions can spread:

  1. Person A sees a Misleading Headline or a headline stating an opinion as if it is a fact.
  2. Person A clicks on it, skims the article without reading closely and thereby misses the subtlety, and then “likes” it. (Fact: On social media, people tend to scroll quickly, taking in headlines and reacting to them without reading past the headline.)
  3. The algorithm shows Person A lots of like-minded partisans talking about the opinion as if it is a fact.
  4. The algorithm shows Person A a post in which a Legal Expert comments approvingly on the Misleading Headline. (The algorithm is smart enough to send Person A an expert who shares Person A’s partisan views.)
  5. Person A is then persuaded that the Misleading Headline is true.
  6. Over the coming days, weeks, months—or even longer—Person A’s belief is continually reinforced by members of his or her community.

Person A, by herself, is simply a misinformed person. Multiply Person A by hundreds of thousands of people in a partisan ecosystem, and you have a problem.

Once a person acquires a belief in this manner, it is very difficult to get that person to question the belief.

Some experts post on social media only when they have well-thought-out opinions. Some lawyers who regularly appear on television are careful to stick to the facts and make sure that, when they speculate, it’s clear that they are speculating.

But some experts (to use Peter Arenella’s phrase) fall prey to the seductive power of being anointed a ‘national expert’ on all legal issues. They discover that it doesn’t matter if they are talking about an area of law they know nothing about and didn’t bother researching. They discover that it doesn’t matter if they toss an opinion off the tops of their heads. Anything they say (particularly if they confirm the biases of their followers) will get lots of engagement and they will be heaped with praise.

Also, they learn that there is no collective memory. They can be wrong with impunity, which frees them to be careless.

Get the Fighters Fighting (and Keep Them Fighting)

Before law school, I taught English and creative writing at the college and university level. It was so long ago that it feels like another lifetime, but I remember Janet Burroway’s book, Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft because when I taught the introductory fiction writing class as a graduate student at the University of California, Davis, I was required to use her book as a text.

As everyone who has taken a literature class knows, good stories contain conflict. Burroway offered this advice to fiction writers:

  • Get your fighters fighting.
  • Make something — the stake — worth their fighting over

Conflict engages readers. Recall from Part 2 that cable news shows learned to use “conflict” programming to engage readers. Social media creates conflict by using algorithms to elevate material that promotes division and creates rage.

The Facebook whistleblower Francis Haugen explained that Facebook algorithms incentivized “angry, polarizing, divisive content.” In her testimony before Congress, she said:

Facebook repeatedly encountered conflicts between its own profits and our safety. Facebook consistently resolved those conflicts in favor of its own profits. The result has been a system that amplifies division, extremism, and polarization — and undermines societies around the world. In some cases, this dangerous online talk has led to actual violence that harms and even kills people. In other cases, their profit-optimizing machine is generating self-harm and self-hate — especially for vulnerable groups, like teenage girls. These problems have been confirmed repeatedly by Facebook’s own internal research.

In a 60 Minutes interview, Haugen explained that content that gets engaged with – such as reactions, comments, and shares – gets wider distribution. Facebook’s own research found that “angry content” is more likely to receive engagement. She said that content producers and political parties are aware of this.

Twitter lets a person look at their “analytics.” (Actually, I don’t know if this is still possible.) These analytics allow a person to see which of their posts get the most engagement. People who are driven by a desire to be popular will study their analytics to see what kinds of posts get the most engagement. Then, they will consciously continue doing whatever gets them “likes” and new followers. The material that will get the most engagement either (1) confirms the pre-existing beliefs of their audience or (2) invokes a strong emotion in their audience.

The Platformer learned that Twitter, under Musk’s leadership, maintains a list of around 35 VIP users whose accounts it monitors and offers increased visibility alongside Elon Musk. The list includes:

@Catturds and Ben Shapiro enrage the left. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez enrages the right. Elevating users on this list gets the fighters fighting and keeps them fighting, which of course, stimulates engagement and helps bring in advertising revenue.

There is a thing on Twitter called dunking: One person says something outrageous or painfully stupid. Others re-tweet the statement and dunk on it by adding a clever or snarky statement intended to highlight the outrageousness or stupidity of the statement.

Trump, while a candidate for office in 2016 and as president, demonstrated that the way to get more media coverage is to be as outrageous as possible. This created something we might call the outrage cycle:

  • Trump said something outrageous designed to excite his supporters and enrage his critics.
  • His critics became enraged.
  • His followers felt euphoric to see his critics become enraged.

Others now copy this method. I have seen Ted Cruz, for example, post something completely outrageous designed to enrage his critics, who then “dunk” on him to the delight of their followers.

Both sides think they win a dunking contest: The dunker (usually a Democrat) shows how clever he or she is, and the dunkee (usually a Republican) gets to be the star of a show entitled “Watch Me Trigger the Libs.”

The dunking game drives up partisanship and increases engagement on the social media platform.

Is social media making us all more authoritarian?

In Part 1, I suggested that authoritarian characteristics exist on a continuum:

  • In Part 3, I showed how the misinformation circulating about the DOJ investigation stimulated three of the characteristics:support for conventional values (for example, the concept of the traditional family of man + women + children with each performing traditional roles.)
  • authoritarian submission (submitting to perceived authorities)
  • authoritarian aggression (“by any means necessary”)
  • stereotypy (a tendency to repeat certain words and phrases; think of group chants)
  • rigidity
  • glorifying toughness and power (and despising bookish weakness)
  • cynicism
  • projectivity (the view that the world is a dark and dangerous place)

Now let’s talk about stereotypy, another item on the list.

Stereotypy refers to behaviors that are repeated without an obvious goal. When political psychologists discuss the traits of authoritarianism, they use the word stereotypy to refer to the repetition of phrases and a tendency to think in rigid categories.

In this video, Timothy Snyder talks about “Internet Triggers,” which he defines as something a person sees on the Internet, often because an algorithm directed the content to the person. The person then feels triggered and repeats it to someone else, who also feels triggered and in turn repeats the phrase. The people are thus transformed into repeaters of targeted memes and soon you have an Internet Trigger gone viral.

Snyder links what he calls Internet Triggers to George Orwell’s 1984. The fictionalized totalitarian government in 1984 worked on reducing the number of words in the language. The goal was to turn people into repeaters of memes because this would prevent them from thinking complex thoughts, and the way to control people is to reduce their ability to have complex thoughts. Snyder said he was “terrified” of the proliferation of Internet Memes because they were accomplishing what the fictionalized government in 1984 set out to accomplish. He also found it terrifying because, in his words, democracy depends on us having “some sense of time beyond our immediate outrage.”

What Snyder calls Internet Triggers I was calling “rage-inducing simplifications” because they take a complex situation and reduced it down to a simple phrase that induced rage and was no longer true, creating a rage-misinformation cycle.

  • Examples of rage-inducing simplifications common in 2021 and 2022:Merrick Garland is doing nothing!
  • Merrick Garland is refusing to investigate Trump!
  • Because Garland is refusing to indict Trump, Garland is responsible for all the damage Trump is now doing.

This was a popular meme:

  • We can thus add another authoritarian tendency, stereotypy, to the list:support for conventional values (for example, the concept of the traditional family of man + women + children with each performing traditional roles.)
  • authoritarian submission (submitting to perceived authorities)
  • authoritarian aggression (“by any means necessary”)
  • stereotypy (a tendency to repeat certain words and phrases; think of group chants)
  • rigidity
  • glorifying toughness and power (and despising bookish weakness)
  • cynicism
  • projectivity (the view that the world is a dark and dangerous place)

Now let’s talk about another item on the list, cynicism.

My observation of modern American politics is that cynicism takes two different forms.

Cynicism Type 1: “He’s a liar, but he’s our liar.”

Some people believe that everyone lies and cheats. If you believe everyone lies and cheats, the winner is the best liar and the best cheater. If you want to get behind the winner, you select the strongest most powerful liar who aligns with your views. Similarly, if you believe everyone lies, cheats, and breaks rules, you don’t care if your leaders lie, cheat, and break rules. 

Moreover, if everyone lies and cheats, fairness isn’t possible. All that is left is brute power. If you want to get behind a winner, you select a strong leader who says, “I’ll break a few rules, but I’ll get things done” or “I will achieve results by any means necessary.”

This kind of cynic is fond of the phrase, “But what about . . . “

Person: Trump is facing 91 criminal indictments and his organization has been found guilty of fraud.

Cynic: But what about the Biden Crime Family?

From Timothy Snyder: Russian oligarchs don’t deny that their government is corrupt. The people can see that. Instead, they say that all governments are corrupt and that it’s just as bad, or worse, in the West.

This kind of cynic doesn’t believe democracy is possible because they don’t believe people are equal. They think some people are better than others, and those people should be in control.

Cynicism Type 2: “Things are supposed to be fair, and they are not! Therefore, the entire system is corrupt.”

Democracy strives for fairness but can never be completely fair, because democratic institutions are run by fallible human beings and because there is constant pushback from people who prefer autocracy or want to embrace a strongman.

People see the unfairness, get angry, and become cynical.

This form of cynicism can sometimes comes from a place of entitlement. The person expects things to be fair, and if things are not, the person grows angry and petulant and demands that someone do something. They think they are entitled to a perfectly fair democracy and do not understand why it has not been provided for them.

What these kinds of cynics often don’t understand (or appreciate) is the work that has gone into making the system as fair as it is and that maintaining and improving a democracy is constant labor. Either that, or they think the heroes of the past, Martin Luther King, Jr., Susan B. Anthony, Pauli Murray, Thurgood Marshall, and others, solved the problem so the work is done and why is the democracy still so flawed?

The first type of cynicism (the person who believes everyone lies and cheats) is higher on the authoritarian scale than the second. The first type of cynic doesn’t believe democracy or fairness is possible. Lower on the scale is the second type. They are what you might call disillusioned idealists.

Here’s the problem: Continually being bombarded with rage-inducing simplifications and Internet Memes can turn idealists into cynics.

Cynicism is destructive because if you think the system sucks and is hopelessly corrupt, there is nothing to do but (1) detach and tune out or (2) seek to destroy it. The insurrectionists were driven by the belief that the system was hopelessly corrupt.

If too many people detach and tune out, who will be left to do the work that democracy requires?

We can now add one more to the list, cynicism:

  • support for conventional values (for example, the concept of the traditional family of man + women + children with each performing traditional roles.)
  • authoritarian submission (submitting to perceived authorities)
  • authoritarian aggression (“by any means necessary”)
  • stereotypy (a tendency to repeat certain words and phrases; think of group chants)
  • rigidity
  • glorifying toughness and power (and despising bookish weakness)
  • cynicism
  • projectivity (the view that the world is a dark and dangerous place)

OK, I believe I have shown how our current disinformation disruption is activating five authoritarian characteristics.