Young Man Shouting at a Man Playing the Trombone

Giving Angry Nonsense a Megaphone

Angry nonsense in denial of factual reality seems to be a growing presence. A school board facing difficult decisions to keep children safe in the new school year faces angry threats from people who want to get their way. “We will find you,” say people who are in a frenzy, thinking that wearing a mask might be more harmful than landing in a pediatric ICU with COVID-19. Some airline passengers are bubbling over with so much anger that duct tape has become an essential tool for flight attendants. Essential workers – a.k.a. store clerks – find that emotional labor has become a big part of their jobs because shoppers have become nightmarishly angry.

Yes, pressures from the pandemic are partly to blame. But social media has brought us a social contagion of anger. It has given angry nonsense a megaphone.

Outrage Draws an Audience

Stoking anger became a business model well before the pandemic ratcheted up our social tensions. Many politicians have come to feed on it. Some have used it to build their following and enjoy a stint in high offices.

A growing body of internet research tells us this is not entirely spontaneous. Algorithms on social media bring phenomenal numbers of followers to individuals who express anger and outrage. Writing in Science Advances, William Brady and colleagues tell us how this works:

“In ideologically extreme networks, where outrage expression is more common, users are less sensitive to social feedback when deciding whether to express outrage. Our findings highlight how platform design interacts with human learning mechanisms to affect moral discourse in digital public spaces.”

As the public realizes this is poisoning our culture, social media companies are responding slowly.

Blocking Research

These companies seem to be caught between a rock and a hard place. On one hand, their corporate reputations are suffering. But on the other, their business models thrive because of engaged users and nothing drives engagement more than passion. Anger fits the bill.

So one approach when the research on social media delivers bad news for the business model is to shut down the research. That’s just what Facebood did recently when it disabled the accounts of NYU researchers. Those researchers explained their work to understand how misinformation spreads on social media in an essay for the New York Times this week.

This move looks a lot like an authoritarian government shutting down inconvenient truth telling.

Nutrition Nonsense

In the darkest days of the pandemic, merchants of misinformation were peddling nonsense about nutrition to fight COVID-19. Though healthful patterns of eating are always a good idea, they are no substitute for real measures to protect ourselves from COVID – like masks and vaccines. Vitamins and supplements don’t prevent COVID-19, either.

Yet many hucksters, some of them doctors, saw the pandemic as an opportunity to earn clicks and make money with misinformation. It was a windfall for dietary supplements. Even now, some people are saying they’d rather take vitamins than take the vaccine or wear a mask.

Will we stop providing a megaphone to angry nonsense? It is time to turn down the volume on anger and misinformation. Engagement is key. All of us can hit the mute button if we simply turn away and reject it.

Click here for the Brady research and here for further perspective.

Young Man Shouting at a Man Playing the Trombone, art by Robert William Buss / WikiArt

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August 15, 2021