Can You Solve The Miserable Being Miserable Online By Regulating Tech?

from the questions-worth-researching dept

Over the last few months, I’ve been asking a general question which I don’t know the answer to, but which I think needs a lot more research. It gets back to the issue of how much of the “bad” that many people seem to insist is caused by social media (and Facebook in particular) is caused by social media, and how much of it is just shining a light on what was always there. I’ve suggested that it would be useful to have a more nuanced account of this, because it’s become all too common for people to insist that anything bad they see talked about on social media was magically caused by social media (oddly, traditional media, including cable news, rarely gets this kind of treatment). The reality, of course, is likely that there are a mix of things happening, and they’re not easily teased apart, unfortunately. So, what I’d like to see is some more nuanced accounting of how much of the “bad stuff” we see online is (1) just social media reflecting back things bad things that have always been there, but which we were less aware of as opposed to (2) enabled by social media connecting and amplifying people spreading the bad stuff. On top of that, I think we should similarly be comparing how social media also has connected tons of people for good purposes as well — and see how much of that happens as compared to the bad.

I’m not holding my breath for anyone to actually produce this research, but I did find a recent Charlie Warzel piece very interesting, and worth reading, in which he suggests (with some interesting citations), that social media disproportionately encourages the miserable to connect with each other and egg each other on. It’s a very nuanced piece that does a good job highlighting the very competing incentives happening, and notes that part of the reason there’s so much garbage online is that there’s tremendous demand for it:

But online garbage (whether political and scientific misinformation or racist memes) is also created because there?s an audience for it. The internet, after all, is populated by people?billions of them. Their thoughts and impulses and diatribes are grist for the algorithmic content mills. When we talk about engagement, we are talking about them. They?or rather, we?are the ones clicking. We are often the ones telling the platforms, ?More of this, please.?

This is a disquieting realization. As the author Richard Seymour writes in his book The Twittering Machine, if social media ?confronts us with a string of calamities?addiction, depression, ?fake news,? trolls, online mobs, alt-right subcultures?it is only exploiting and magnifying problems that are already socially pervasive.? He goes on, ?If we?ve found ourselves addicted to social media, in spite or because of its frequent nastiness ? then there is something in us that?s waiting to be addicted.?

In other words, at least some of this shouldn’t be laid at the feet of the technology, but rather us, as humanity, in what we want out of the technology. It’s potentially a sad statement on human psychology that we’d rather seek out the garbage than the other stuff, but it also kind of suggests that the “solution” is not so much in attacking the technology, but maybe figuring out solutions that have more to do with our own societal and psychological outlook on the world.

However, as Warzel notes, if social media is preternaturally good at linking up the miserable, and encouraging them to be more miserable together, then you could argue that it does deserve some of the blame.

Misery is a powerful grouping force. In a famous 1950s study, the social psychologist Stanley Schachter found that when research subjects were told that an upcoming electrical-shock test would be painful, most wished to wait for their test in groups, but most of those who thought the shock would be painless wanted to wait alone. ?Misery doesn?t just love any kind of company,? Schachter memorably argued. ?It loves only miserable company.?

The internet gives groups the ability not just to express and bond over misery but to inflict it on others?in effect, to transfer their own misery onto those they resent. The most extreme examples come in the form of racist or misogynist harassment campaigns?many led by young white men?such as Gamergate or the hashtag campaigns against Black feminists.

Misery trickles down in subtler ways too. Though the field is still young, studies on social media suggest that emotions are highly contagious on the web. In a review of the science, Harvard?s Amit Goldenberg and Stanford?s James J. Gross note that people ?share their personal emotions online in a way that affects not only their own well-being, but also the well-being of others who are connected to them.? Some studies found that positive posts could drive engagement as much as, if not more than, negative ones, but of all the emotions expressed, anger seems to spread furthest and fastest. It tends to ?cascade to more users by shares and retweets, enabling quicker distribution to a larger audience.?

This part is fascinating to me in that it actually does try to tease out some of the differences between what anger does to us at an emotional level as compared to happiness. It also reminds me of the (misleadingly reported) Washington Post story regarding how Facebook kept adjusting the “weighting” of the various emoji responses it added, especially focused on how to weight the “anger” emoji.

Anger certainly feels like the kind of emotion that will lead something to spread quickly — we’ve all had that moment of anger over something, and spreading the news feels like at least some kind of outlet when you feel powerless over something awful that has happened. But I’m still not clear on how to break down the different aspects of how all of this interacts with social media, as compared to how much it’s shining a light on deeper, more underlying societal problems that need solving at their core.

Warzel argues that the connecting of the miserable is something different, and perhaps leads to a more combustible world:

But it also means that miserable people, who were previously alienated and isolated, can find one another, says Kevin Munger, an assistant professor at Penn State who studies how platforms shape political and cultural opinions. This may offer them some short-term succor, but it?s not at all clear that weak online connections provide much meaningful emotional support. At the same time, those miserable people can reach the rest of us too. As a result, the average internet user, Munger told me in a recent interview, has more exposure than previous generations to people who, for any number of reasons, are hurting. Are they bringing all of us down?

Some of the other research he highlights suggests something similar:

?Our data show that social-media platforms do not merely reflect what is happening in society,? Molly Crockett said recently. She is one of the authors of a Yale study of almost 13 million tweets that found that users who expressed outrage were rewarded with engagement, which made them express yet more outrage. Surprisingly, the study found that politically moderate users were the most susceptible to this feedback loop. ?Platforms create incentives that change how users react to political events over time,? Crockett said.

But in the end, he notes that, well, this is all interconnected and way more complicated than most people proposing solutions would like to admit. Destroying Facebook doesn’t solve this. Removing Section 230 doesn’t solve this (and, would almost certainly make this much, much worse).

But the technology is only part of the battle. Think of it in terms of supply and demand. The platforms provide the supply (of fighting, trolling, conspiracies, and junk news), but the people?the lost and the miserable and the left-behind?provide the demand. We can reform Facebook and Twitter while also reckoning with what they reveal about the nation?s mental health. We should examine more urgently the deeper forces?inequality, a weak social safety net, a lack of accountability for unchecked corporate power?that have led us here. And we should interrogate how our broken politics drive people to seek out easy, conspiratorial answers. This is a bigger ask than merely regulating technology platforms, because it implicates our entire country.

I think his suggestion is correct. We need to be looking across the board at how we build a better society — and in doing so, we’re doing everyone a disservice if we just think that “regulating tech” somehow will solve any of the underlying societal problems. But, as the article makes clear, there are so many different factors at play that’s it not easy to tease them a part.

Filed Under: , , , , , ,

Rate this comment as insightful
Rate this comment as funny
You have rated this comment as insightful
You have rated this comment as funny
Flag this comment as abusive/trolling/spam
You have flagged this comment
The first word has already been claimed
The last word has already been claimed
Insightful Lightbulb icon Funny Laughing icon Abusive/trolling/spam Flag icon Insightful badge Lightbulb icon Funny badge Laughing icon Comments icon

Comments on “Can You Solve The Miserable Being Miserable Online By Regulating Tech?”

Subscribe: RSS Leave a comment
Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Cure misery online with technology? Sure!

Ah, yes Mandatory Happiness.

Nothing says "we have a fully dysfunctional and uncaring society" more than just making emotions illegal. Of course the next step is to have enforcers running around that kill you if your happiness isn’t high enough.

Or you know, we could actually try to address our society’s problems instead of sweeping them under the rug.

This comment has been deemed insightful by the community.
Anonymous Coward says:

The majority of what I look at on social media is positive because I don’t go looking for stuff that makes me upset or miserable. I still see some of it in passing, but it’s easy to just ignore usually. Maybe that makes me less informed, but my mental health is more important.

Uriel-238 (profile) says:

Maybe we should address some of the problems?

There’s a story (it may be apocryphal) that Sigmund Freud took in a patient who complained that he’s hungry, and so Freud had a meal prepared for him.

Similarly, in 21st century psychiatric treatment, therapists need to look at causes in a patient’s life, and invites them to make a stress inventory someone who is depressed and anxious isn’t going to be helped much if they spend forty hours a week in a toxic work environment, can’t get proper nutrition and are only averaging thirty-five hours of sleep a week. In that case, the therapist can only help the patient cope well enough to make the steps to escape their toxic regimen.

This is the survive to thrive model.

Likewise, I suspect there’s a difference between people getting stressed out due to tabloid news (id est, celebrity break-ups; candy-marketing character redesigns; children’s books with controversial messaging) as opposed to people getting stressed out about real news (the global tilt towards human habitability ending by 2050 may be irreversible by 2030; there’s PFOA in the water everywhere; the government plans to only facilitate the escalating trends of officer-invoved violence towards American civilians; the US about to drop trillions on another war while kids starve on the homefront)

Yes, our capitalists want to use SSRIs the way Russia uses vodka, to keep workers working despite intolerable conditions, but they don’t work that way. Likewise, the internet publicizing the lousy underbelly of the industrial machine and corrupt institutions is a benefit, a first step towards changing establishment so that it’s not ruining lives and treating human beings as expendable.

Yes, we humans are able to look at the chaos and decay for so long before we lose hope, and our society needs to train people at an individual level to regulate their news-intake the way they regulate their Netflix-binging, beer consumption or shopping sprees. But when it comes to the gross unmanaged failures of our society, there’s benefit to everyone knowing about it, so that those with ideas can relay them to those with power to implement change.

This comment has been deemed insightful by the community.
James Burkhardt (profile) says:

Re: Re: Ugh.

Assuming the intent was to express that what we should be doing is facing and addressing our societal issues rather than burying them via regulation, its a great premise. A few passes for grammer and structure would definitely help, but I think the intent comes across.

That Anonymous Coward (profile) says:

Human nature.

How often have you seen a review of okay service?
Not that often, but if something goes sideways the 12 page dissertation of how this is the worst thing ever & they will never return & tell everyone not to go there.

Social media makes it easier, but isn’t the cause of it.

No one is born a KKK member, they are exposed to the ideas & speech of other members and this shapes the new recruit into a KKK member. It used to be a bit harder because you needed a local chapter & then find a way to recruit new folks while trying to avoid drawing to much attention from those who think your racist piles of crap.

Now social media makes it easier to troll for new recruits & have a virtual meeting not being picketed… but its not social media creating it, its humans adapting the things they have always done to the new.

Humans LOVE to blame the new thing as the cause of all misfortune…
Priest decries teddy bears because young girls won’t learn mothering if they have teddy bears. (no really)

Idiot decries paper being introduced to schools because children wouldn’t be able to write clearly on slates or take care of slates correctly if we allow them to use paper.

Humans are these poor innocent creatures who are incapable of being bad, it is the fault of all of the outside sources & pressures that make them do that so if we remove the sources & pressures everything would be fine.

Or y’all are a bunch of assholes who enjoy dodging the blame of your own decisions by pretending if not for X you NEVER EVER would have done this.

The iPhone didn’t force you to text and drive, yet everytime there is a tragic case someone tries to blame Apple.

Oh that drunk isn’t responsible, they are addicted. They still decided to drive to the bar, drink, & drive home, pretty sure that is all on them. We pass laws making the bars, bartenders, waitresses responsible if they ‘over serve’ the drunk pretending everyone who hits .08 stumbles around like a teen girl at prom.
Now they are demanding interlocks on new cars for everyone to stop the problem… that a few assholes drink & drive.

The problems are in humanity, and humanities ability to be strong independent creatures until they might have to take the blame for their own actions & suddenly they are the victims of X.

Anonymous Coward says:

Parents angry at platforms such as Facebook and Instagram claim that such platforms make their children feel insecure and miserable through relentless comparisons – comparisons that they’ve had no qualms making themselves, either to the kids for not whipping themselves hard enough or to brag about their offspring to relatives and neighbors.

On some level, I doubt people want to actually solve the problem of misery. "Misery builds character", as Calvin’s dad was often partial to saying. Sell suffering as a feature instead of a bug and you’ll find no shortage of suckers willing to settle for second best. Miserable people don’t want to shake the status quo, simply latch onto whatever temporary fix they get because they simply can’t handle going much further. Miserable people do not pose a threat or competition. They’re frightfully easy to coerce into submission.

Several therapists wonder why employers and organizations don’t invest in their subordinates’ mental well-being and happiness. It’s simply easier to keep people miserable – that makes them dependent and obedient. The ones that stop being so can be easily replaced.

Glenn says:

Mob theory is still mob theory, even when it’s online, on social media. We are what we are, wherever we are.

One of those things you can tell by just looking. (some thinking required, too)

The point of social media is to communicate. What is communicated begins with the persons doing it. The medium doesn’t really change this.

Tech enables us to be who we are. Be careful what you wish for… you might get it.

PaulT (profile) says:

Re: Re:

In theory, the problem with online communication is that when granted the state of anonymity, some people will let out things that they wouldn’t normally want to be associated with under their real identity. But, I dare say that certain forms of social media have proven this to be false, and some people really don’t mind being offensively toxic under their real identity.

That Anonymous Coward (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:

Faux News taking heads tweet all the time.

I admit I can be an asshole, but thats hardly because I am a nym… I’m an asshole and I do not suffer stupid people.
I gave up giving 2 shits about social norms and politeness around the 3rd time I heard all gays are pedophiles and oh my FSM the slippery slope between gay marriage and bestiality.

Admittedly I’m not nearly famous enough to end up with a stalker out to get me, but why the fsck would I take that chance?

People have driven cross country in plots to kill politicians they disagree with & have been told by other assholes that those politicians are evil demons who eat children.

There is a lot of toxic out there in the world, but humans spend more time trying to break out the messenger with antitrust lawsuits than to admit some people are fscking toxic no matter what and that toxicity has been tolerated far to long… hell look at Trump supporters.

Member of Congress claiming Jan 6 wasn’t an insurrection & if you looked at the video it was just like any other day with citizens on a tour. Except the footage of him helping barricade a door & looking terrified as he doesn’t see an exit and there is only 1 armed person between him and the door.

We’ve had more hearings on "Big Tech" than the fact that sitting members of Congress are repeatedly lying to the American people & its causing a bodycount. No one will make them show their "evidence" or do anything to combat it because we’ve now waited to long and given in to often that there is nothing that can make them accept actual facts. They believe its more likely that JFK Jr. faked his death & is coming back to restore Trump to the presidency & than the pandemic is just the media still making things up.

Add Your Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Have a Techdirt Account? Sign in now. Want one? Register here

Comment Options:

Make this the or (get credits or sign in to see balance) what's this?

What's this?

Techdirt community members with Techdirt Credits can spotlight a comment as either the "First Word" or "Last Word" on a particular comment thread. Credits can be purchased at the Techdirt Insider Shop »

Follow Techdirt

Techdirt Daily Newsletter

Techdirt Deals
Techdirt Insider Discord
The latest chatter on the Techdirt Insider Discord channel...