Is social media turning you into a zealot?

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Story highlights

  • Brian Hughes: News gathered from social media is increasingly unreliable
  • Recent studies suggest that much of what we share on platforms like Twitter and Facebook are even destructive to the social order

Brian Hughes is a professor of media studies at Queens College, CUNY. He writes and researches on the topics of extremism, new media, and the Middle East. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN)Have you heard? Hillary Clinton is dying of Parkinson's disease. Also, Donald Trump thinks the United States shouldn't have stopped the Bosnian genocide. Angry mobs of "Bernie bros" are hurling chairs at Democratic staffers. And President Obama, who smells like sulfur, is followed everywhere he goes by a swarm of flies.

These are fake statements, pulled from the bowels of the internet. Can you tell?
If you get your information from social media, the world is an almost supernaturally dark place these days. Our feeds and timelines are jammed with outrageous and incredible accounts that prove what we all already suspected: our political opponents are crazy. Maybe some of them are downright evil.
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The good news is that much of what you read via social media isn't true. The bad news is that more and more people believe it is. Social media increasingly dominates our news-getting habits. But recent studies suggest the stories we share on platforms like Twitter, Facebook, and elsewhere are unreliable, polarizing, and even destructive to the social order.
A recent experiment published at Buzzfeed demonstrates that an average of 28.55% of articles shared on partisan social media are either mostly false, or a mixture of truth and fiction.
Another study, done by Gnip analytics and reported in the new issue of The Atlantic suggests that across-the-aisle dialogue could make up as little as 10% of social media interactions.
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How much of that do you suppose is friendly crosstalk? Not much, according to yet another study by scholars from George Washington and American universities. According to their study of social media during the 2011 Egyptian revolution, the authors say the most politically active social media users were also the ones most prone to spreading stories promoting paranoia and violence.
Indeed, to those of us who have studied the role of social media in uprisings such as Iran's "Green Revolution" and the Arab Spring, this all comes as no surprise. Social media platforms like Twitter were instrumental in organizing the protests that led to the overthrow of despots throughout the Middle East. But when the smoke cleared, and the ousters had been accomplished, old dictatorships were replaced with new ones, and the few democratically elected governments were fast dominated by hardline Islamists.
Social media, while excellent at spreading unrest, proved incapable of supporting open, democratic reforms.
Like digital platforms in general, social media is great at disrupting institutions and industries. But when it comes to the hard work of reform and building sustainable systems, it is a dangerous hindrance. Stable government depends on a pause in revolutionary fervor. Open societies rely on people's faith in the good intentions of their fellow citizens. Democracy can't function without a well-informed electorate.
But as the previously-mentioned studies show, social media encourages exactly the opposite of all these virtues. Our personally-tailored social media feeds create what the legal scholar Cass Sunstein calls enclave extremism — groupthink and factionalism with a tendency to spiral into zealotry.
This happens in part because social media are biased in favor of duplication and repetition. It is easy to share a story, retweet it, reblog it, or affirmatively "like" it. But Silicon Valley designers have yet to invent an emoji that means "poorly argued, but reflecting valid concerns."
Add to that the fact that the most shareable stories are "click bait" designed to generate quick bursts of outrage and self-righteousness. What you get is a thousand niche realities, each spreading misinformation, mistrust, and rage.
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Unfortunately, we in the United States are beginning to see the political consequences of social media's bias towards the outrageous and untruthful. Regardless of who is elected President in November, that person will face a crisis of legitimacy stemming from accounts of election fraud and suppression, or foreign or intra-party meddling. Some of these news items will contain kernels of truth, but many will not. And all of them will be spread on social media.
The very structure of social media — peer-to-peer and relatively free of oversight — means that this will not be an easy hurdle for the next President to clear. Meanwhile, social media use continues to spread worldwide. It may ultimately fall to users to de-escalate the war of words and pictures before it becomes a global digital war of all against all.
As the experience of the Arab Spring should remind us, virtual unrest can easily spill into the streets. We should ask if all the "likes" in the world are worth that outcome.