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The Stupidity of Social Media Power
Why the Long Arc of History Bends Towards Availability Bias
There is an immemorial pattern in history. Individual stories win in the marketplace of propaganda. They can be used for good and ill. They can be used to unite a people. They can lead that people to conquer and destroy foreign lands. They can be used to birth new religions. They can be used to persecute heresies. They can be used to scapegoat a race of human beings. And they can be used to fight for colorblind equality.
In modern times, we’ve had our fair share of individual narratives. George Floyd. Vaccine adverse reactions. Kyle Rittenhouse. COVID deaths in children. Groomers. Epstein. Transitioners. Detransitioners.
Outrage media crafts these narratives into a permanent hell: a world where there are constant police shootings, vaccine side effects, vigilantes, child COVID deaths, groomers in public schools, sex trafficking of minors, people persecuted by the state for pursuing a medical operation and people tricked into permanently damaging medical operations.
In reality, each of these stories are nothing but local anecdotes. A poll last year found a drastic overestimation of the number of police killings of black men in 2019. The true number is in the low double digits, 13 according to a Washington post tracker. More than half of every demographic was off by at least one order of magnitude, almost two in five liberals were off 100-fold, and more than one in five very liberal respondents thought there were about 10000 or more! A shocking degree of delusion.
Here’s the thing with anecdotes. They do not symbolize a broader pattern. They symbolize nothing. None of these stories have any impact at all to the vast majority of Americans. More lives would be improved by focusing on inflation, healthcare, immigration, energy, pandemic prevention, and other issues which both Democrats and Republicans can win on.
But haven’t anecdotes been responsible for many good things in history? Indeed, they have. But they are like a game of Russian roulette. The ability to manipulate can be used for good or evil. And there’s reason to think that we’re going to mostly be using them for evil from here on out.
The biggest sign is social media. Any anecdote can go viral. And there are so many Americans, or people around the world, that even one in a million events occur daily. This means there are enough police shootings, child kidnappings, and groomers to fill your social media feed. Any random American can be immersed in a world where QAnon or “systemic racism” seems real. If you were living in a village, or even a city where every day you saw a child kidnapped in front of your eyes, you would believe in QAnon. And you wouldn’t be wrong to do so. The same is true for police shootings. It takes a modern type of discipline to realize that the sum total of evil in the world of seven billion humans, brought to you live on facebook, is not all happening to your neighbours. Taking the police killing number once again, 13 police killings in a year, scaled down to the level of a smaller city of 100000 people means one police killing every 250 years. The odds are you wouldn’t even live to see one of them.
All of this requires a basic level of cognition. Social media is specifically designed to destroy that level of cognition. Important factions react emotionally to police killings and child kidnappings. They behave emotionally in politics. They engage in politics because they are emotionally manipulated. They care a lot. And that matters.
These instincts have existed long before social media. They were preyed on by newspapers, radio hosts and TV anchors. A big white pill for humanity is that we still managed to create the world we live in today. As it turns out, giving people the freedom to control themselves worked. And it still works, more or less.
The main threat of anecdotal politics is exactly to these freedoms. It is people who are willing to use state or institutional power to fight a problem that only exists in their conspiracy theory world, whether it is mass racism, a stolen election, or a cabal of child traffickers. Those people are a minority. If we realize the stakes, the center can and will unite to defeat them.