The Evidence Just Doesn’t Support Any Of The Narratives About The Harms Of Social Media

from the it's-complicated,-but-not-in-the-way-most-people-think dept

A whole bunch of people over the last month have sent me Jonathan Haidt’s essay in The Atlantic, “Why the Past 10 Years of American Life Have Been Uniquely Stupid,” and asked for my thoughts. Haidt’s basic premise is that the problem is social media. It’s more complex and nuanced than that, and there are some important points in the complexities and the nuances, but the takeaway remains that social media is the problem. I’ve written about half of three different responses to it, but am still working on a more complete article explaining what I think it gets wrong. So this article is not that. However, this article is about an excellent piece in The New Yorker by Gideon Lewis-Kraus that is, itself, something of a response to Haidt, with the title: “How Harmful is Social Media?

It’s absolutely worth reading — especially if you eagerly bought into Haidt’s argument. Right now it’s so easy to blame social media for basically every social problem in the world, even if all social media is doing is shining a light on those problems that always existed, but were more hidden from wider view. We’ve seen the blame social media crowd use it to deflect from dealing with larger problems with recent mass murders. We’ve seen how states like California are pushing forward with laws that take the “blame social media” claims as fact. Hell, much of the AB2408 bill that is likely to be passed into law in a matter of weeks includes language that treats the “harms” of social media as fact.

But, the problem, as Lewis-Kraus’s piece makes clear, is that the evidence doesn’t actually show that. At all. He notes that Haidt’s piece was based, in part, on an analysis of a bunch of different studies about the impact of social media. This was a collaborative project of a bunch of researchers interested in the questions about the impact of social media, and at some point, the document was made public. It’s also worth reading. But, as Lewis-Kraus found, as you dig into it, the evidence is strikingly inconclusive if you’re trying to argue that social media is bad for society. It’s also inconclusive if you’re trying to argue the opposite. Basically, the evidence is… inconclusive.

The document runs to more than a hundred and fifty pages, and for each question there are affirmative and dissenting studies, as well as some that indicate mixed results. According to one paper, “Political expressions on social media and the online forum were found to (a) reinforce the expressers’ partisan thought process and (b) harden their pre-existing political preferences,” but, according to another, which used data collected during the 2016 election, “Over the course of the campaign, we found media use and attitudes remained relatively stable. Our results also showed that Facebook news use was related to modest over-time spiral of depolarization. Furthermore, we found that people who use Facebook for news were more likely to view both pro- and counter-attitudinal news in each wave. Our results indicated that counter-attitudinal exposure increased over time, which resulted in depolarization.” If results like these seem incompatible, a perplexed reader is given recourse to a study that says, “Our findings indicate that political polarization on social media cannot be conceptualized as a unified phenomenon, as there are significant cross-platform differences.”

There are some areas where the research does seem to clearly suggest that the popular narrative is just flat-out wrong, even as the narrative lives on. Last fall we wrote about pretty compelling research debunking the whole “social media creates echo chambers” thinking, and that makes an appearance in this New Yorker piece as well. Of course, without echo chambers as an excuse to fall back on, some are wondering if perhaps the lack of echo chambers is actually more of a problem than the reverse. That is, if everyone is confronted with conflicting ideas all the time, a natural reaction is to pick a side and dig in, creating more of an “us vs. them” mentality.

“A lot of the stories out there are just wrong,” he told me. “The political echo chamber has been massively overstated. Maybe it’s three to five per cent of people who are properly in an echo chamber.” Echo chambers, as hotboxes of confirmation bias, are counterproductive for democracy. But research indicates that most of us are actually exposed to a wider range of views on social media than we are in real life, where our social networks—in the original use of the term—are rarely heterogeneous. (Haidt told me that this was an issue on which the Google Doc changed his mind; he became convinced that echo chambers probably aren’t as widespread a problem as he’d once imagined.) And too much of a focus on our intuitions about social media’s echo-chamber effect could obscure the relevant counterfactual: a conservative might abandon Twitter only to watch more Fox News. “Stepping outside your echo chamber is supposed to make you moderate, but maybe it makes you more extreme,” Bail said. The research is inchoate and ongoing, and it’s difficult to say anything on the topic with absolute certainty. But this was, in part, Bail’s point: we ought to be less sure about the particular impacts of social media.

What about the idea that social media is dangerous because it’s a giant vector of misinformation polluting our minds? Again, the research has suggested it’s not as much of a problem as people make it out to be:

But, at least so far, very few Americans seem to suffer from consistent exposure to fake news—“probably less than two per cent of Twitter users, maybe fewer now, and for those who were it didn’t change their opinions,” Bail said. This was probably because the people likeliest to consume such spectacles were the sort of people primed to believe them in the first place. “In fact,” he said, “echo chambers might have done something to quarantine that misinformation.”

This was also stuff that we’ve pushed back on in the past. The “disinformation” story is pleasing for the media to repeat, because it basically puts them in the position of being saviors. If you can’t trust the riff raff and their disinformation spewers, then clearly the “answer” would be more traditional media. So, they have every incentive to play up that angle, even if the data doesn’t much agree with it.

And then we come to everyone’s favorite passion of late: the algorithms are radicalizing us all. The theory here generally goes that social media companies want more engagement and they learned early on that more and more extreme content makes people engage for longer, and therefore, they started taking every day normal people and turning them into radical extremists. Hell, this is a major theme of the popular documentary, The Social Dilemma that is chock full of disinformation itself, including its fictionalized family in which a teenager goes from a normal everyday teen into a raging 4chan-radical in like a week. Except, again, as we’ve reported, the evidence says this just isn’t true.

And Lewis-Kraus found the same thing:

The final story that Bail wanted to discuss was the “proverbial rabbit hole, the path to algorithmic radicalization,” by which YouTube might serve a viewer increasingly extreme videos. There is some anecdotal evidence to suggest that this does happen, at least on occasion, and such anecdotes are alarming to hear. But a new working paper led by Brendan Nyhan, a political scientist at Dartmouth, found that almost all extremist content is either consumed by subscribers to the relevant channels—a sign of actual demand rather than manipulation or preference falsification—or encountered via links from external sites. It’s easy to see why we might prefer if this were not the case: algorithmic radicalization is presumably a simpler problem to solve than the fact that there are people who deliberately seek out vile content. “These are the three stories—echo chambers, foreign influence campaigns, and radicalizing recommendation algorithms—but, when you look at the literature, they’ve all been overstated.” He thought that these findings were crucial for us to assimilate, if only to help us understand that our problems may lie beyond technocratic tinkering. He explained, “Part of my interest in getting this research out there is to demonstrate that everybody is waiting for an Elon Musk to ride in and save us with an algorithm”—or, presumably, the reverse—“and it’s just not going to happen.”

As the article notes, many of the early studies, on which these narratives are built, don’t actually hold up to much scrutiny.

When I spoke with Nyhan, he told me much the same thing: “The most credible research is way out of line with the takes.” He noted, of extremist content and misinformation, that reliable research that “measures exposure to these things finds that the people consuming this content are small minorities who have extreme views already.” The problem with the bulk of the earlier research, Nyhan told me, is that it’s almost all correlational. “Many of these studies will find polarization on social media,” he said. “But that might just be the society we live in reflected on social media!” He hastened to add, “Not that this is untroubling, and none of this is to let these companies, which are exercising a lot of power with very little scrutiny, off the hook. But a lot of the criticisms of them are very poorly founded. . . . The expansion of Internet access coincides with fifteen other trends over time, and separating them is very difficult. The lack of good data is a huge problem insofar as it lets people project their own fears into this area.” He told me, “It’s hard to weigh in on the side of ‘We don’t know, the evidence is weak,’ because those points are always going to be drowned out in our discourse. But these arguments are systematically underprovided in the public domain.”

What the giant collection of studies, and Lewis-Kraus’s article seem to make clear, is this shit is complicated. The reality, as with so many things, is that there are many, many different factors, and many, many different variables. And, as I keep saying over and over again of late: some of it may be exacerbated by social media, but some of it also may be made better by social media. And an awful lot of it may just be shining a light on parts of human nature and society that we’ve long swept under the rug. And we shouldn’t be oversimplifying the problems, or simply blaming the messenger for them. But so many people are.

Another point that is made in the article — and one that I find myself repeatedly arguing with people on Twitter about — is the fact that social media is dynamic, not static. Much of the narrative around how awful social media is, is based on the idea that the people who run these platforms don’t care, and don’t do anything to fix potential problems. If that was ever true — and it was never actually the case — it was only marginally true in the early days, and hasn’t been in over a decade.

Nyhan argued that, at least in wealthy Western countries, we might be too heavily discounting the degree to which platforms have responded to criticism: “Everyone is still operating under the view that algorithms simply maximize engagement in a short-term way” with minimal attention to potential externalities. “That might’ve been true when Zuckerberg had seven people working for him, but there are a lot of considerations that go into these rankings now.” He added, “There’s some evidence that, with reverse-chronological feeds”—streams of unwashed content, which some critics argue are less manipulative than algorithmic curation—“people get exposed to more low-quality content, so it’s another case where a very simple notion of ‘algorithms are bad’ doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. It doesn’t mean they’re good, it’s just that we don’t know.”

The article is correct in that no one is saying there’s no problem at all. Just that we haven’t accurately figured out the real issues, or the real impact of just about anything. And when you don’t understand that, you’re certainly not going to be able to fix things.

The reality, again, is that it’s complicated. It’s really complicated. And part of that is that we’re dealing with people. Not machines. This isn’t physics. Humanity and society are messy. And there are tons of confounding variables. Anyone selling easy answers is selling snake oil. Anyone insisting that they fully have humanity figured out is lying.

But, really, it’s important that so much of the narrative, based on nonsense and myths, needs to change.

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 “The Evidence Just Doesn’t Support Any Of The Narratives About The Harms Of Social Media”

Subscribe: RSS Leave a comment
David says:

Well, see it this way:

High speed trading fundamentally changed the financial markets. Social media are essentially high speed trading of the public conversation. Of course that results in a difference in the dynamics of how truths and falsehoods manage to make progress in the public perception.

Now make no mistake: that’s a problem. However, centralised creation of electronically distributed mass media has revolutionised propaganda and has been one of the enablers of both world wars, and is currently also seen in full force in countries such as China and Russia.

Like democracy’s leveling effect of the bulk of constituents picking their leaders making it the least awful of bad ways to pick a government in the long run, public discourse has a leveling effect for conveying a common idea of truth and not getting stuff lost. Social Media empowers and quickens that process but also leads to falsehoods having much more impact and distribution before they peter out (if they do) in the general perception.

So it certainly comes with new problems. And it’s not clear how much can be brought under control without that control becoming more of a problem than what one tries to deal with.

Naughty Autie says:


However, centralised creation of electronically distributed mass media has revolutionised propaganda and has been one of the enablers of both world wars…

WWI was fought 1914-1918, WWI was fought 1939-1945, and the research that culminated in TCP and IP was released in 1974. So how, exactly, did centralised creation of electronically distributed mass media contribute in any way to either world war? Enquiring minds want to know.

David says:

Re: Re: Re:2

Radios weren’t transistorised until 1954. Electronics didn’t start with transistors: vacuum tubes predate them, and simple radio detectors were semiconductor-based even if they didn’t use transistors for amplification.

However, radio broadcasts were indeed not relevant in WWI but became so later.

Naughty Autie says:

Re: Re: Re:3

Read the article I linked to. Radios first became electronic when they were transistorised. If they had been made electronic before then, it would have been mentioned. Just because the tech existed doesn’t mean it was employed, just like the lithium-ion battery was patented in 1987, but wasn’t really used until the smartphone revolution of the 2000s.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:4

Valves and other vacuum tube devices are also electronics, are part of

The field of electronics is a branch of physics and electrical engineering that deals with the emission, behaviour and effects of electrons using electronic devices.

that is they come under Valve radios have existed since at least the mid 1920s. The BBC was founded in 1922. You almost certainly have at least one vacuum tube electronic device in your house, the microwave oven with its klystron.

Naughty Autie says:

Re: Re: Re:5

You almost certainly have at least one vacuum tube electronic device in your house, the microwave oven with its klystron.

So? Not only did microwave ovens not exist until 1946, but even if they had, you can’t use them to communicate in any way, so they’re not germane to the conversation. Get a clue!

Bobvious says:

Re: Re: Re:6 Microwave communications

Not only did microwave ovens not exist until 1946, but even if they had, you can’t use them to communicate in any way,

If you defeat the interlocks you can open the door and use the microwave radiation as a rudimentary carrier wave for simple AM. You could of course also remove some of the covers and use the magnetron directly with a suitable waveguide, although the usual danger caveats should be observed.

In any case, it is possible to communicate in at least some form.

David says:

Re: Re:

TCP/IP has been a big enabler enabler for decentralised electronic distribution of mass media. But radio far predates it. WWII saw the prohibition of listening to “enemy broadcasts”. While certainly there was also decentralised use of radio waves, it was largely of little relevance for distribution of news; CB and shortwave operators notwithstanding.

ECA (profile) says:

Re: Re: you asked

Look up history of fax machines.
1800’s good enough?

Then the teletype

Both based on the same idea’s and What an electrical impulse could do. NOT DIGITAL.

You need to understand how NEWS was spread. and how it got Faster and faster and then Almost instant.

David says:

Re: Re: Re:

Also not electronic but electric. It did, however, speed up the distribution of news significantly across dedicated routes which then was further disseminated by newspapers. So yes, while not radio and not electronics, it already was an important part of making news spread much faster than by horse or pigeon.

Rocky says:

Re: Re: Re:2

I think he understands it just fine.

Any electronic circuit can be referred to as electronics regardless of what type of components used – whether those components are vacuum tubes, diodes, transistors, resistors, capacitors, transformers or any other kids of electronic component.

Rocky says:

Re: Re: Re:4

My reading comprehension is just fine, but anyone referring to that definition of electronics as some kind of refutable argument to what ECA said is the one having problems with their reading comprehension.

You are of course free to quote the relevant part from that definition that you think support your argument after which I will ridicule you. Or perhaps you will realize your error and slink off into the night…

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:5

Look up history of fax machines.
1800s good enough?

Then the teletype

Earliest vacuum tube wasn’t invented until the 1900s, so it’s not just reading comprehension you lack, but also the ability to do basic research. How are you even online?

Rocky says:

Re: Re: Re:6

Earliest vacuum tube wasn’t invented until the 1900s, so it’s not just reading comprehension you lack, but also the ability to do basic research. How are you even online?

Yeah, about doing basic research and somehow thinking the invention of vacuum tubes defines what is considered electronics… Did you know the radio was invented before vacuum tubes existed? Did you know the telegraph was invented before vacuum tubes? Did you know that the telephone was invented before vacuum tubes?

All of the above inventions where built using primitive electronic components that didn’t include vacuum tubes.

So in your own words, it’s not just reading comprehension you lack, but also the ability to do basic research. How are you even online?

This comment has been flagged by the community. Click here to show it.

Valis (profile) says:


has revolutionised propaganda ….. and is currently also seen in full force in countries such as China and Russia.

You left out the USA! I understand that you, as a white Westerner, do not realise the extent of the pro-Western propaganda you are constantly being bombarded with. You “can’t see the forest for the trees”, lol! We non-Westerners see it very clearly however.

At least China and Russia don’t force their propaganda down our throats all the time like the USA does.

Naughty Autie says:

Re: Re:

You “can’t see the forest for the trees,” lol!
More like “You can’t see the trees for the forest.” It’s so often the case that allistic people are quite adept at ‘seeing the big picture’ despite completely missing a lot of the details that go into the whole image, such as knowing about propaganda, but not which countries engage in it (all to some extent).

Rocky says:

Re: Re:

At least China and Russia don’t force their propaganda down our throats all the time like the USA does.

China and Russia doesn’t force their propaganda down the throats of their citizens since most of the citizens there are so used to it that they consume it willingly proclaiming it to be pure ambrosia.

ECA (profile) says:

Re: rythme and reason

Would love to have 1000, Psychologists Study and watch over sections of chat and other conversations.
That is IF’ you want answers.

The real questions come with How other countries have dealt with it.
This Country serves up a dish of discontinuity and Rambling idiocy, that at times we take our minds off the MAIN problems of raise our children.
In most of the EU, as Iv read about working conditions in many location, tends to be MORE for the home, then the USA express’s.
Those in charge seem more Carpet beggars and cut throats, then innovators and creators.
The corps are a bunch of lazy Bill collectors that get others to do the job, so they can get write-offs on taxes, then anything else.
I still ask if the Backbone has really been updated, and the proof of it. As I dont think they want or hav improved much, beyond money grabbing from consumers and the gov.

With all that said, What are the younger people seeing and doing? No one is helping them, monitoring them, watching over them to make it so they Survive Living in this life, After being born.
Anyone remember ‘Latch key kids’? its gotten Worse.

Cattress (profile) says:

Re: Re:

No, latchkey kids have not become “worse”. In fact, for the vast majority of kids, they are under a watchful eye significantly more than when I kid. Things like the age that kids first have sex or try drugs has gone up a few years. Much of the reason that kids have so much social interaction online rather than in person is because they aren’t allowed to go anywhere, or take any means to get anywhere without an adult. Parents organize playdates with neighborhood kids instead of them just knocking on each other’s door. Nobody knows their neighbors and so they don’t trust them. Nobody wants any liability risks, like kids cutting through their yard to play in the woods, or playing in wooded area they own. People move around more than they used to, so they just aren’t as likely or motivated to get to know the neighbors. It’s not like millennials and gen z can much afford to buy a house anyway. Suburbs are busier with cars and denser with structures that leave less green and recreational space. Uptight people pass local ordinances that forbid skateboards and scooters, require a fucking license for a bicycle. Yes you read that right, a license to for your child’s bike. Parents are expected to attend a lot of structured activities, and anything they let their kid do with unstructured time is up for criticism or blame for anything the kid does wrong (even if it’s just being a kid).
Of course finding the right balance of privacy and independence with guidance and protection isn’t easy. There is never going to be a perfect formula for screen time,structured and unstructured play. Today’s parents are always going to be criticized by the ones of yesterday and tomorrow.
I think it’s older people, especially lonely ones, that need more guidance on the internet than the kids. Just like the article points out, there are a ton of bad and wrong takes on raw data and research. Research twisted to prove what someone wanted it to, usually by older folks, under the guise of for the children.

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...