Thought Germs, Filter Bubbles, and Virality

Sunday night, a friend and I ended up talking about the trolley problem, a thought experiment by Philippa Foot that aims at the  differences that minor changes can make in our moral calculations. While the problem itself is interesting, it mainly launched us toward a related topic: moral consensus and disagreement, i.e. what to do when what you think is “right” differs from what I think is “right.”

Though I didn’t mention it in the conversation, the debate brought me back to studying medical ethics, particularly the beliefs of Christian Science and Jehovah Witnesses. Christian Science says that diseases arise from sin and prayer provides the only solution. As one can expect, the reliance on spiritual healing does not always work, and in the case of children, the result can be tragic, with families getting prosecuted for child death. A similar death from belief occurs with Jehovah Witness, only by refusing blood transfusions instead of medicine at large.

Here, two things are particularly interesting. First, while many people will consider this a foolish, tragic loss of life, one must also consider it from their perspective: either a single, painful death or an eternity in damnation. From this belief system, the rejection of medicine is morally right. This does not condone the belief system, but only shows why the stakes are so high.

Second, many people may feel fine with letting the parent die from their beliefs, but the sticking point is the “innocent” child. In other words, you can lose your own life for your beliefs, but shouldn’t cost the lives of others. This fallout from belief challenges the libertarian bias that many Americans may feel: we are not as autonomous as we like to think and our beliefs affect our society and those around us.

These two elements–the persistence of radically different views and their affect on others–force one to examine the role of belief and the mechanisms of belief as a moral and ethical issue. In a sense it echoes Emmanuel Levinas: we are always in relation to one another and have a moral imperative to respect that relation.

Particularly, I want to consider the role of the Internet and Internet technology in this: how it might help and hinder the process of belief.

Enter CGP Grey and “This Video Will Make You Angry”:

Essentially what Grey argues is that “thought germs” on the Internet, like cat photos or political memes, exploit weak points in our brain’s “immune system,” like our emotional response to cuteness, humor, or anger.  Grey goes on to argue that warring thought germs are actually symbiotic, as an argument brings in more people trying to assert an opinion against “the other.” And in large groups and long arguments, neither party actually argues much with the other; instead, arguments become insular, with groups arguing about the other group within themselves.

Grey’s focus on emotion connects with what Karine Nahon and Jeff Hemlsey write in Going Viral, about some traits of successful viral events: that they often connect emotionally, express a common interest, allow one to remark on them, and are often timely. Each of these traits, except timeliness, seems to lend itself to Grey’s hypothesis.

For example, I share an angry video about gun control. A friend with a  similar interest and opinion re-posts the link with an added opinion. This enters the friend’s cluster of close ties, who likely share a similar belief, and the patterns continue, creating the sort of insular argument that Grey notes. As Nahon and Hemlsey note with a library example–a video that is not broadly popular, but that is viral among librarians–a similar group-based virality is taking place.

But, as Nahon and Hemlsey argue, viral events can grow into topics, which may be more relevant to the gun debate. Topics are essentially collections of shares that may or may not be viral in themselves, but that build from a common viral theme or event. My gun control meme may not go viral. in itself, but it enters a larger debate of hashtags, memes, and other exchanges. In fact, as Grey argues, it may even build off the contentions of the debate. As we fight, the virality grows–and more posts about gun control circulate.

Such topics, like all viral events, follow the pattern that Nahon and Hemlsey set up: a sudden and self-sustaining rise in popularity, then a somewhat sudden shift to decay or lack of growth. This forms a “sigmoid curve.”

Sigmoid curve, via Wikimedia commons
Sigmoid curve, via Wikimedia commons

Most importantly, they argue, such virality can strengthen or challenge an institution or social structure, possibly doing both at the same time. One can see this with the #BlackLivesMatter movement, with each viral video of police brutality becoming a powerful tool to challenge police authority and institutional racism. Or, on the conservative angle, the leaking of those now discredited videos around Planned Parenthood enraged and inspired anti-abortion activists. With gun control, I’m not quite sure wat is taking place. More recently, we have the virality of the Starbucks Christmas cup; we’ll just have to see how that plays out.

While I think Nahon and Hemlsey do articulate an elegant and effective framework for looking at this dynamic, it leaves out some of the messiness, especially the role of trending and the algorithms of trending. I argue that such challenges and reifications often express a “constellation of forces,” to use John Muckelbauer’s term. A non-dielectical debate is taking place over these issues, with different ebbs and flows and points of view, extended by our latent human biases, our cultural structures, and our interface algorithms.

Human bias first. As Grey points out, humans are emotional, often more so than we realize. We also have confirmation bias, negativity bias, out-group hostilities, spotlight bias, observational selection bias, etc. In other words, as David McRaney argues in his blog and book, “You are not so smart.”

Next our cultural structures. Eunsong Kim, in “The Politics of Trending,” criticizes the simple buy-in of trending topics as legitimate topics. As Kim and Nahon and  Hemsley point out, many mainstream media centers can become helpful gatekeepers for the legitimacy they  bestow on a topic, and when they acknowledge a trending topic, they can exert influence.

But Kim interrogates trending, recognizing that Twitter’s system is largely a “black box,” with topics that should be trending, like #Ferguson, being sidelined behind somewhat arbitrary, “hot” topics. Thus, in both counts–the actual trending and the veneration of trending–people are not recognizing the reality of what actually should be viral.

This connects with interface algorithms alongside Eli Pariser’s “filter bubble,” his term for the way Internet spaces tailor ads and status updates according to your browsing habits. In his example, Pariser has two friends Google “Egypt.” One gets travel information and the other gets information on the Jan. 25 Revolution. He also notes that many of his conservative friends, whom he disagreed with but still wanted to hear, started to fade away from his newsfeed, filtered out by this bubble.

What Kim and Pariser connect with, then, and Nahon and Hemsley only hint at, are the “gatekeeping” mechanics of the interfaces and how they influence virality. And if virality can influence social and institutional structures, as Nahon and Hemlsey argue, these effects are potentially dangerous, as they are often unnoticed, yet felt. Moreover, connecting Pariser to Grey, these algorithms can further exacerbate the weak points in our brain’s “immune system,” by isolating different groups into their own self-gratifying thought bubbles.

As I close, I want to highlight a final attempt at solution. What makes the sciences, philosophy, and other pursuits so successful is the use of an established, tested set of methods and methodologies that is codified, yet questioned. The strength of logic and empiricism have limits, as Latour and others have pointed out, yet they are consistent and produce results. The danger with virality is that it has no independent, codified foundation. It is a logic of popularity and context.

In the absence of codification then, which may be a bad thing, I recommend questioning and care. As the French philosopher Emil Cioran wrote in A Short History of Decay, “In itself, every idea is neutral, or should be; but man animates ideas, projects his flames and flaws into them . . . whence the birth of ideologies, doctrines, deadly games.” The more we interrogate why something is popular or why we may retweet a post, I think, the better.  It forces us to provide a reasoning for something that may exert substantial power, and with great power, so says uncle Ben, comes great responsibility.

[Image: Virus by Daniel Lobos]

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