Psychochild's Blog

A developer's musings on game development and writing.

11 August, 2015

Social Media: it leads to the dark side
Filed under: — Psychochild @ 6:40 AM

Blaugust, day 11

As I said yesterday, a lot of the worst things about social media are self-inflicted, mostly about the behavior online. I’m not just talking about trolls; they’ve been around since early the early days of the internet. Rather, I want to talk about some of the psychological quirks that serve us poorly in the age of hyper connectivity across the globe.

I’ll take a look at a lot of the worst of it in the remainder of this week. Today, let’s talk about anger!

Automatic reactions

Humans have developed a lot of automatic reactions that we can’t always control. Phobias are an example. These automatic reactions might have been useful at one time; for example, arachnophobia was probably at least marginally useful in the wild where you might have venomous spiders lurking around and being extra alert when seeing them was a useful thing. But, that reactions is less useful in our modern world, where the common types of spiders you’re likely to run into are not poisonous.

In psychology, he technical terms for these reactions is “heuristics”, but we more often call them by common names like “gut reaction” or “knee-jerk reaction”. Keep in mind that these heuristics aren’t very fine tuned; the goal isn’t necessarily to solve a problem in a perfect way, rather the goal is for you to react in a way that is “good enough” to resolve the problem. Arachnophobia doesn’t make you alert to venomous spiders, it makes you react negatively to all eight legged critters, which is good enough to make you not get too close to the venomous ones as well.

It’s not hopeless, as people can overcome heuristics with training and willpower. A general heuristic for many people is “eat available food”, but most people don’t go around taking food from strangers at restaurants and people losing weight have rules in place for how much food they should consume. But, willpower is probably a limited resource, so it’s not as easy as saying “well, just don’t do that.”

One of the most overactive heuristics these days is the “fear of the other”. We look for differences and emphasize them. In the days of living in tribes, an outsider might represent a real danger to your group and distrusting outsiders was probably a useful survival mechanism. But, in the modern world with a global communication network where people of vastly different backgrounds interact? Yeah, that fear of the outsider isn’t quite so useful. And as the wrinkly green dude says, “fear leads to anger….”

Righteous anger

Let me be clear that anger can be a good thing. Things about the world should get you angry such as injustice or mistreatment of others. Prior to the internet, when you got angry it was often in a private setting and that anger could get you fired up and turned toward something productive. You might lash out, but people you knew would calm you because you were probably a real asshole when you were angry.

So, I’m not here to say that you should never get angry. What I’m saying is that getting angry and displaying that anger online can cause more problems than it solves.

Why anger works online

This has become my new favorite video explaining online behavior, particularly about anger. It’s worth watching, and despite the name didn’t really make me that angry.

There’s lots of good stuff there. On the positive side, it shows the awesome communication potential of the internet where it can take a lot of content, filter for the good stuff, and even improve it. We are awash in great entertainment from humorous pictures to wonderful songs from all corners of the internet.

But, there’s the dark side lurking: if you can make someone angry, they’re more likely to share your content. Remember what I said yesterday about how content companies fan the flames of controversy in order to get more views? Well, this is how anger does double duty. And, if we’ve seen anything over the past few years, it’s that people sure do get angry on the internet.

Talking past each other

The other really interesting thing in the video is how people on opposing sides start to view “the enemy”. It starts with people cherry picking the extreme examples that make them the angriest, and these extreme examples being shared prolifically and embellished. Eventually, people stop even talking about the other side and create a totem that represents the other side that makes them the most angry.

So, remember that epic social media battle that originated about video games with women-murdering rape apologists fighting against man-castrating Social Justice Warriors? Those two caricatures demonstrate this behavior perfectly. The reality is that there were likely a large number of people who were concerned about some topics and wanted to bring attention to their issues. But, as it felt like “the enemy’ wasn’t giving one side’s topics enough attention, people began to cherry pick behavior to show what “the enemy” had done, and the most angering of those examples were spread faster.

Of course, some people trolled the whole thing, planting false flags or relishing the attacks to generate controversy and attention. The flames were fanned by news sites seeing outrage (and thus clicks) while eagerly detracting from any scrutiny in how they operate, and the anger perpetuated by people looking for attention by spreading the most extreme information.

It didn’t help that political lines were also drawn, meaning that supporting one side or the other created assumptions about your personal politics. And given the divisive nature of politics… oh, but that discussion is for Thursday’s post.

And nothing gets resolved

The first step is to understand that despite the prevalence of things like Twitter hashtags and Facebook groups, not every group is monolithic with a unified belief system and endorsed behaviors. One can hold a belief without endorsing the behavior of every other person who happens to share that belief. After all, I support equality for women while absolutely abhorring the hatred spewed by so-called trans-exclusionary feminists.

As the video hints at, the argument never really has to end. Unfortunately, it seems more people were simply interested in blaming others rather than in actually making a change. Perhaps something else comes along to distract the angry masses, but somewhere there are groups of people certain that their anger is righteous and justified, because just look at how horrible that other side is! But what’s really needed is actual discussion, empathy, understanding, and a willingness to help others and get them to help you.

Instead, I’m sure there will be people posting angry comments below about how I suck for not instantly supporting their side, and obviously I’m the worst example of “the enemy” for those reasons. (Protip: those people will get their comments deleted, so be respectful in the discussion below.)


  1. What the video calls a “thought germ” is almost exactly the definition of a meme from Dawkins’ “The Selfish Gene”. There are differences, and these could be discussed, but I’m not going to go there.

    What’s interesting to me is that there’s research suggesting that memes may offer an evolutionary advantage: specifically, being prone to sharing one’s memes contributes to their spread, and that in turn creates a system that favours any organism that shares the meme.

    An example? Democracy. The idea that we should all contribute equally to society and benefit equally is no more than a meme, and it’s not made it to every corner of the world yet. Again, there’s plenty of opportunity to get side tracked exploring this further, but that’s not the point.

    The point is that calling this mechanism “thought germ” is also a meme, namely one that (IMHO falsely) associates this mechanism with something unsavoury: both through the choice of name, and through focusing on a particularly negative example in the video.

    I’m not a big fan of that meme^Wthought germ.

    Comment by unwesen — 11 August, 2015 @ 7:12 AM

  2. The problem I have with the concept of “memes” or “thought germs” is that they are analogies but they get treated, in videos and lectures and books, as though they were entities. A germ is an actual, physical thing. A “thought germ” is not.

    Analogies are almost always unhelpful and misleading. I use them all the time.

    I’d like to hear this phenomenon clearly explained without the use of any analogies at all.

    Comment by bhagpuss — 11 August, 2015 @ 8:50 AM

  3. @bhagpuss I’ll give it a try without analogies. Why posts that make you angry per-se, are more effective at spreading is due to morality and intergroup relations. The subject of that angry post will always have some arbitrary outgroup distinction – whether it be skin color, country of origin, sexual orientation, politics, or something as mundane as their favorite sports team. Sharing, liking, and other forms of public displays of approval are a method by which an ingroup member can reinforce their entitlement to that group. Quite a few cognitive distortions play into it, which is why it was said to be ‘short circuiting’ the immune system (if you liken that to rationality). Why this seems to be the most prevalent form of thought propagation is rooted in evolution (not memenetics) Guilt-prone group members who are empathic with their ingroup are much more competitive in an intergroup interaction.

    It’s slightly depressing on the face of it – as if evolution says we should act this towards one another. But moderation, discussion, understanding, as psychochild puts it, I would cite as the reasons why our species hasn’t died yet on an over-tuned evolutionary plateau.

    Comment by dataferret — 11 August, 2015 @ 4:07 PM

  4. unwesen wrote:
    What the video calls a “thought germ” is almost exactly the definition of a meme….

    Sure, but meme is an academic term. Just like “germ” is a more colloquial term for bacteria and viruses, “thought germ” is a more approachable term for the concept. I’d be surprised if the creator of that video wasn’t familiar with Dawkins’ work. But, using academic words while discussing cat images would probably make most people feel a bit silly.

    Plus, nobody knows exactly how to pronounce “meme”. ;)

    The point is that calling this mechanism “thought germ” is also a meme, namely one that (IMHO falsely) associates this mechanism with something unsavoury….

    Well, I think the creator of the video was taking a clinical look at the topic and not really trying to create a negative association with it. The germ metaphor works pretty good for describing to the average person how a meme works. Unfortunately, there are generally pretty negative associations with bacteria and germs because they make us sick.

    But, I think the negative connotation does work in the context of the video. The whole point is that you have to be wary of what memes you see online and how you react. Just as we tell people to cover their mouth when they sneeze, we should tell people to cool down and think before they reshare something that simply makes them angry.

    bhagpuss wrote:
    A germ is an actual, physical thing. A “thought germ” is not.

    Well, this is almost more of a philosophical statement. “Germs” is actually a colloquial concept to describe groups of microscopic organisms. And, unless you’re a virologist or bacteriologist, these microscopic organisms are probably mostly an abstract concept to you as well. I’m told I have a bunch of bacteria living in my digestive system, but I haven’t seen them.

    As for metaphors, I’d say that if you just call them “thoughts” that’s sufficient. Its just that the term metaphor is useful to get people to think about how thoughts are transmitted, particularly online. Getting down to the scientific level of explaining how a series of electrochemical impulses in your brain are translated to another series of electrochemical impulses that cause a physiological response of your mouth and lungs to create vibrations in the are through a common medium of language into the auditory organs of another person which translates the vibrations in the air to electrochemical impulses (but almost certainly not identical to the original) that are interpreted through the medium of language lacks a certain… something. (And feel free to change the verbal medium to a visual one for online interactions.) And, that’s just an overview of everything that’s really going on with communication as there’s a LOT more, particularly with psychology and how that affects the whole process.

    dataferret wrote:
    …by which an ingroup member can reinforce their entitlement to that group.

    Pretty good attempt at removing the metaphor. As I said, I thin you can just drop the “germ” part and still get a good idea of what’s going on.

    I’ll talk about this part I quoted in particular later when I talk about “tribalism”.

    Comment by Psychochild — 12 August, 2015 @ 6:29 AM

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