How social media distorts the truth about everything we know

Nearly everything you think you know about other people’s opinions is probably wrong. 

And one of the main culprits is social media. 

We are all suffering under what author Todd Rose calls “collective illusions” — social lies that lead individuals to go along with what they think the majority believes, despite privately disagreeing. 

Collective illusions have been around nearly as long as human beings, but today they’ve “been turbocharged on a global scale — thanks, in part, to the wonders of platforms like Facebook and Twitter,” writes Rose, whose book “Collective Illusions: Conformity, Complicity, and the Science of Why We Make Bad Decisions” (Hachette) is out now. 

One of the first documentations of these illusions came in 1932, when a Syracuse University researcher embedded himself in Eaton, NY, a tight-knit religious community near Utica. 

The researcher set out to investigate what the townspeople thought about proper behavior, asking, “What do you think most people in this community would say about smoking, drinking, and bridge playing?” 

Social media gives us a false impression of what people think, amplifying only the fringe voices.
Social media gives us a false impression of what people think, amplifying only the fringe voices.
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The reply: “Most people would say that those are very sinful activities.” 

The researcher, however, soon discovered most of the townsfolk enjoyed those activities in private. 

The reason for the disconnect: an influential church elder named Mrs. Salt who expressed her Puritanical views publicly and loudly. The townspeople concluded — wrongly — that she spoke for the majority. 

Social media functions like a million digital Mrs. Salts, facilitating rapid shifts in “perceived consensus, allowing fringe actors to manufacture illusions by creating the impression of majorities that don’t exist in reality,” writes Rose. 

A 1932 study of Eaton, NY, found that people believed their fellow townsfolk thought activities like smoking, drinking and bridge were "sinful" — but, in reality, everyone was enjoying them.
A 1932 study of Eaton, NY, found that people believed their fellow townsfolk thought activities like smoking, drinking and bridge were “sinful” — but, in reality, everyone was enjoying them.

This phenomenon — especially politically — has driven a “deep unsettling sense that something is wrong with our society,” the author writes. “It feels as if the values of our society have changed almost overnight. We feel disoriented, frustrated, disaffected, and distrustful of each other.”

The problem, in part, lies with the way our brains reach conclusions. 

“Brains are energy hogs, and through evolution they’ve been shaped to take shortcuts,” Rose told the Post. “Your brain could spend more energy with better sampling, but a reliable shortcut is, ‘The thing I’m hearing the most about and the people speaking up the most probably represent consensus.’ ” 

In 2013, Twitter shut down more than 6,000 bot accounts programmed to retweet content from Venezuelan president Nicolás Maduro (above). Though the bots made up just .5 percent of the leader’s followers, killing them caused his retweets to drop by 81 percent.
In 2013, Twitter shut down more than 6,000 bot accounts programmed to retweet content from Venezuelan president Nicolás Maduro (above). Though the bots made up just .5 percent of the leader’s followers, killing them caused his retweets to drop by 81 percent. 
Carolina Cabral

That feature becomes a massive liability in the age of social media, because “it’s so easy to give the impression of consensus,” Rose continues. “Russia and China understand this and they’ve spent a lot of time on it.” 

In the pre-tech days, fringe ideas had trouble gaining traction. No longer. 

One study found that bots posing as people — which already account for an alarming 19 percent of interactions online — needed to represent only 5 to 10 percent of participants in a discussion before the opinion the machines were pushing became the dominant view.  

Social media stars like the Kardashians magnify the importance of fame in our culture, even though most people don't crave notoriety.
Social media stars like the Kardashians magnify the importance of fame in our culture, even though most people don’t crave notoriety.
AaronP

In 2013, Twitter shut down more than 6,000 bot accounts that were programmed to retweet content from Venezuelan president Nicolás Maduro. Although the bots made up just .5 percent of the leader’s followers, terminating them caused his retweets to drop by 81 percent. 

What’s more, economist Juan Morales later found that the bots’ termination correlated with a rise in criticism of the president. The phony consensus created by the bots had actually cowed dissenters into silence. 

Another big danger, Rose says, is that, “This generation’s collective illusions become the next generation’s private opinions.”

Kids especially need to understand that what they see on social media does not represent reality.
Kids especially need to understand that what they see on social media does not represent reality.
Flashpop

One example: Rose’s think tank, Poplace, did a massive study on what makes for a successful life. The number one thing that Americans thought others cared most about was being famous. In reality, fame came in dead last. But the collective illusion about fame’s importance is reinforced in advertising, entertainment and online. 

Collective Illusions
Collective Illusions

UCLA studied how social media affected the ways in which middle schoolers internalized values. 

“Up until a few years ago, the dominant themes were about character — they wanted to be a good friend and honest,” Rose says. “A few years ago it changed to, ‘I want to be a famous YouTube star.’”

It may sound bleak, but there’s hope. “As powerful as illusions are, they’re also fragile,” he says. 

One step to breaking them is simply recognizing they exist — something less than 3 percent of Americans do, according to the author. 

“Social media is a carnival of funhouse mirrors — it will distort,” Rose says. “We can’t do anything about that, but we each have control over whether that distortion changes the way we treat one another.”