The prospects for a happy, healthy, prosperous year 2023 are not a lot better than they have been in 2020, 2021, as well as this year happily ending. This pessimistic essay is about only one of the ways we are not improving: social communication.
We are bound together by shared social investment (trustworthy social networks), strong institutions that enhance informed discourse, and shared narratives about who we are. Without these, democracy cannot survive. None of these three forces is working as well as formerly. They rely on communication. Our communication is breaking down.
One basic reason for this failure is how we process information, or, better, how we select it.
As cognitive beings we have a tribal-survival instinct to agree with evidence that confirms our beliefs. We are biased toward input that our beliefs are right. At the same time we try to ignore whatever contradicts our beliefs.
Conflicting ideas cause us stress. The name for this stress is "cognitive dissonence." It occurs when we hold two contradictory beliefs at the same time.
In the past, we have been taught to welcome opposing ideas. Science is based on the principle that truth results from refining concepts in the face of new evidence. Higher education and research lead to clearer understanding and more accurate knowledge, so we put up with the mental discomfort that comes with learning -- even when our core beliefs are challenged.
Our toleration has been eroded. We now have a generation of new adults who never lived in an environment that welcomed diverse belief within their social community. Gen-Z (born after 1990) has arrived at a consensus that emotional discomfort is unnecessary and dangerous. Furthermore, there are acceptable ways to prevent this, through active opposition. It may not be enough to simply isolate ourselves from pernicious opposition by boycotting or shunning. If adversaries encroach on us, as when we have to live within the same political system or locality, we may feel the need to be forceful. Some groups espouse violent opposition as inevitable or as a last resort.
Now we have social media, entering a second decade of technical abetment for disseminating socially destructive opinion. One can now denounce dissenting ideas by attacking adherents of those ideas, and social media will automatically draw attention to our attack for people to agree with us. If our group grows large enough, it has influence on those who produce products or pass laws. It's easy to subscribe. All you have to do is hit "like" or "retweet."
The validity of information is now far less important than how it confirms our beliefs and the beliefs, policies, and actions of our side.
Even more alarming than the way social media help total strangers form alliances and take sides is the way the media provide punishment for dissent.
We are in deep trouble when we undermine the correctives to our communication. The most effective remedy for bias is involvement with people who don't share our outlook; but we no longer feel we need to or want to interact with people who don't share our beliefs. And we no longer think there are strong institutions we can trust to develop information that is beyond suspicion. Social media and the algorithms that run them have reinforced our intolerance of diversity and also increased the ease with which we can remove ourselves from unwelcome challenges to our opinions and our beliefs.
Thanks to technological developments in social media, we can now "like" a post and find ourselves receiving agreement and countless similar ideas. Studies have found that we pay more attention to ideas of conspiracies to inflict danger on us and our group. We're being persecuted.
As if it were not enough that we feel our own community is "embattled and disrespected," there is an ongoing "Information World War in which state actors, terrorists, and ideological extremists leverage the social infrastructure underpinning everyday life to sow discord and erode shared reality" [quote from DiResta's 2018 essay "The Digital Maginot Line" in Jonathan Haidt's "After Babel," The Atlantic, May 2022, downloaded Dec. 23, 2022, entitled "Why the Past 10 Years of American Life Have Been Uniquely Stupid"].
My pessimism for the coming year is that this communication deterioration has not yet run its course or even reached its peak. Artificial intelligence sources are already able to spread "highly believable disinformation" and state entities are finding out how to exploit our communication vulnerability. Meanwhile, technical correctives (such as the ability to detect bots -- internet programs that interact with each other) and social awareness (including willingness to check facts) are just getting started.
Our communication trouble is deeper than our ability to send and receive messages. We now know how to do that better than ever. It is the content and intent of the messages that is undermining our communication.
What we need to repair is how we think and formulate beliefs.
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Rev. Dr. Kenneth Dobson posts his weekly reflections on this blog.