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From outrage to disinformation: It’s time to reform social media

Online outrage has exploded on platforms like Twitter and Facebook, where there’s no shortage of partisan smearing. So has disinformation about social and political issues.

REUTERS/Dado Ruvic/Illustration

“This is my megaphone … This is who I am. This is how I communicate. It’s the reason I got elected. It’s the reason that I’m successful.”

So said President Donald Trump regarding his Twitter account, as revealed in Bob Woodward’s book “Fear: Trump In The White House.” You may not agree with the 45th president on a number of issues, but if Trump has been right about anything, it’s that he’s savvy about media, including social media.  If you want to be “successful” on these platforms (get likes, shares, comments, followers, etc.), the more outrageous your performance, the better. In other words, spreading online outrage is a recipe for success on social media, especially political success.

It’s no surprise, then, that online outrage has exploded on platforms like Twitter and Facebook, where there’s no shortage of partisan smearing. So has disinformation about social and political issues, such as the epidemic of falsehoods and conspiracy theories concerning the COVID pandemic. Evidently, this scourge of outrage and disinformation on social media has fueled extremist movements, including those that hijacked peaceful protests and incited violence in the Twin Cities, throwing extra discord into social unrest.

Why do social media unleash so much online outrage and disinformation, especially about politics? There are probably a couple of reasons.

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It’s easier to trash others online

First, it’s inconvenient to communicate outrage face to face. When we have disagreements in person, we tend to keep it civil, because it’s draining to get into a shouting match. In contrast, communicating outrage is convenient online. It’s easier to trash others from behind a screen, where you don’t have to look at them directly and perceive their reactions. Indeed, studies show that outrage is more common online than in person.

Christopher Cocchiarella
Christopher Cocchiarella
Second, outrage can be profitable on social media, because a lot of their business models work according to algorithms designed for an advertising agenda. First, hook your attention with content and ads. Next, collect as much of your personal data as possible — your likes, shares, comments, etc. Finally, sell your personal data to third parties, who, in turn, target you with more attention-hijacking content and ads. Needless to say, what hijacks more attention is often what generates more outrage; and what generates outrage needn’t have any relation to truth.

Granted, many recognize online outrage and disinformation as problems. Unfortunately, as pandemics and unrest oblige us to stay home, social media use is increasing, which means online outrage and disinformation about social and political issues will increase too. That increase will likely make the pandemic and unrest even worse. True, Twitter discontinued political advertising and is trying to fact check posts, yet people will flame over politics regardless. Clearly, citizens bear some responsibility for restoring civility online, but we also must call on lawmakers and technologists to reform these platforms.

Time to rethink, redesign, regulate

So, in the spirit of civility and reform, here are a couple recommendations.

Citizens: Be careful with outrage online, particularly when it comes to political discourse. Partisan proclamations on social media can come across as virtue signaling to one’s political tribe (and, by implication, shaming others), which rarely changes hearts and minds.

Instead, let’s demand reform of social media. Of course, if you want to go a step further, leave social media altogether … at least until lawmakers and technologists fix these platforms. Which brings us to the second point.

Lawmakers and technologists: It’s time to rethink, redesign, and regulate social media in a socially conscious way. On the policy end, we need privacy rights and data protection laws to set reasonable limits on how big tech can collect and sell our personal information. Some places have already enacted such legislation, including the California, and Sen. Amy Klobuchar has introduced similar legislation on the national level.

On the professional end, we need to rethink the design of social media. Theoretically, social media could provide useful tools for having conversations with diverse viewpoints, as opposed to spreading outrage-inducing disinformation within echo chambers. Reforming social media to bring out the better angels of our nature is worth considering in this time of divisiveness over pandemics and unrest, not just to help fix our politics, but also for the sake of our social and psychological well-being.

Christopher Cocchiarella is a training and development specialist with a background in technical communication and user experience. He can be reached on his site

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