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Social warming – and the damaging effects of online outrage

In the week that the Wall Street Journal revealed that Instagram executives have known the platform was making girls unhappy and did nothing about it, the hosts of the Tech Shock podcast,Vicki Shotbolt and Geraldine Bedell, spoke to Charles Arthur, journalist and author of a new book, Social Warming.

“Social Warming”

Arthur argues on the podcast that there are parallels between our use of social media and the climate crisis – a phenomenon he calls “social warming”. The pervasiveness of social media means that small, individual actions can snowball as platforms amplify posts: a single tweet can quickly and easily reach millions of people. “A change doesn’t have to be big to have a big effect,” Arthur says, pointing to the way in which Facebook impacted the Trump election. “These small changes could come to act as tipping points.”

Tribalism and outrage

Arthur traces this “social warming” back through human evolution, to the “inbuilt tribalism” that helped us survive. The tribe could do more than the individual – and being thrown out of the tribe would mean death. Today, “these things are still baked into us, just played out on social networks.”

“Outrage was the function by which you showed someone was not worthy of being in the tribe”. It is a “deep, personal, emotive reaction” – and, as such, ensures engagement online.

Some posts are particularly polarising: “Trans women are women”, for example, or “Abortion is murder” or “Britain is better off out of the EU.” Arthur calls these “scissor statements”: posts that instantly split people into ‘for’ or ‘against’ and, as a result, “amp up the algorithm”. Strong engagement levels tell platforms’ algorithms to show more of these posts, and “outrage gets amplified”.

“Attention is everything”

It’s “not in networks’ interest to moderate this [outrage],” Arthur says: for social media platforms, “attention is everything”. Algorithms use the posts you look at to maximise the time you spend on their platform.

Many commentators believe screen time makes us unhappier – especially young people – but the evidence, Arthur says, is unclear. Much research has highlighted the positive impact of time spent online.

The difference between boys and girls

One factor that tends not to be considered in the screentime debates is the different ways boys and girls spend time online. While both play online games, boys tend to be much heavier gamers, while girls spend more time on social media.

On the podcast, Arthur referred to the Global Happiness Index, which has traditionally shown young people ending their teen years happier than when they started – until 2011. It was around this time that social media platforms were really becoming ubiquitous – and Charles thinks the two things may be linked. “The availability of social media, seeing others having a great time and a wonderful life, makes you feel your progress is less great than [others’]... for the younger mind, this can be debilitating”. The Wall Street Journal story about Instagram seems to bear this out.

Arthur says girls are more ‘performative’ online, using social media to highlight achievements and demonstrate bonds with friends. Users’ dissatisfaction is reinforced by the algorithm, which shows more of what people are already looking at, with potentially disastrous impacts on self-esteem. “There’s no sense that the social networks give you any way to navigate this, they just present it to you, they just feed more of it to you because that's how the algorithms work.”

What’s the answer?

Self-regulation of these platforms has been unsuccessful. “They’ve known about the harms they do for years,” Arthur says. The time has come for regulation – such as the incoming Online Safety Bill and the new Children’s Code (Age-Appropriate Design Code). Arthur notes that the latter is already “having an effect”, with for example, age verification.

More is needed, he argues. Platforms could build in opportunities for self-reflection by making it harder to post or share content – something Twitter is already doing when users try to retweet something they haven’t read.

Another potential solution – and the one he favours – is capping the size of networks to make moderation possible. Meanwhile, he sees the Online Safety Bill as – at least – “a positive step forward”.


Listen to episode 2 of Tech Shock: "Is social media creating a tipping point for the world?"

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