“And they often tend to fail catastrophically, unexpectedly, without warning.”
What if human civilization could survive wars and plagues, but not social media?
This is the question that seems to motivate an alarming new article, published in the elite newspaper Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences and written by a surprisingly diverse team of researchers in biology, psychology, neuroscience and climatology, and more. It’s dark read – and, perhaps, a call to action to better understand the volatile ways misinformation spreads online.
University of Washington co-author and researcher Joseph Bak-Coleman spoke about the article in a provocative new interview with Vox. Here is what he had to say:
The question we were trying to answer was, “What can we infer from the course of large-scale society, given what we know about complex systems?”
It’s kind of how we use mouse or fly models to understand neuroscience. Part of it has come back to animal societies – namely groups – to understand what they tell us about collective behavior in general, but also about complex systems more broadly.
So our goal is to take that perspective and then look at human society with that. And one of the characteristics of complex systems is that they have a finite limit on the disturbance. If you disturb them too much, they change. And they often tend to fail catastrophically, unexpectedly, without warning.
Bak-Coleman and colleagues cite many examples of areas where they believe social media has disrupted the flow of reliable information on health, climate, and many other pressing topics. But they also expressed a tension at the heart of the work: while the internet can be a terrible force, it can also be a force for good.
“The democratization of information has had profound effects, especially for marginalized and under-represented communities,” said Bak-Coleman. Vox. “It gives them the ability to rally online, to have a platform and to have a voice. And it is fantastic. At the same time, we also have things like the genocide of Rohingya Muslims and an insurgency on Capitol Hill. “
READ MORE: Why some biologists and environmentalists believe that social media is a risk for humanity [Vox]
More on social networks: Zuckerberg: Facebook is building a machine to read your mind
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