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1. Social media isn’t the problem… we are – In the past two years, I’ve shared a lot of research in this newsletter related to social media use. Most of this research has argued the opposite of what most people expect: that social media isn’t the problem.
Typically, when I’ve shared research or made these sorts of statements, a lot of readers have pushed back and/or simply refused to believe it. For a year now, I’ve been planning on writing the end-all-be-all article on why social media isn’t ruining the world, where I’d lay out my arguments with some more nuance. I’ve also been dying to shit on that horrible Netflix documentary everyone was talking about last year, The Social Dilemma.
Well, I finally sat down and did it. And not only do I explain why social media is not the problem, I explore the much deeper, scarier problem. Check it out:
(Sidenote: Just because I don’t think social media is necessarily destroying the fabric of civilization, doesn’t mean I think it’s that great of a thing either. As always, I recommend practicing a strict Attention Diet.)
2. Being in a group affects moral reasoning – Some of the more interesting research I’ve come across lately is about how being in a group affects people’s moral decision-making. But first, a horribly over-simplified summary of ethical philosophy, in like, two paragraphs:
There are two competing modes of moral reasoning. The first mode says, “The ends justify the means.” So, if you need to steal some money from a rich person to feed a bunch of poor people, it’s worth it. The second mode says, “The ends never justify the means; every action is an end in itself.” These people say, “Stealing is wrong, therefore you should never steal, even if it creates a better outcome for more people.”
These two modes of reasoning have been arguing in circles around each other for centuries. And let’s be honest, both are partially correct. We need both in the world. If you get too much of the first mode of moral reasoning, you can easily justify doing some horrible shit for the “greater good.” But too much of the second mode and you become a draconian police state. We need a balance.
Okay, back to the research. The research points out that when people are in groups, they lean far more on the first mode of moral reasoning. And when they are by themselves, they rely more on the second.
This means that when people are by themselves, they will be more likely to conclude, “You know, stealing a bunch of money from wealthy people is wrong because stealing is wrong. We should find a better way to solve this problem.” But you put them in a group, suddenly everyone starts to wonder, “Wait a second, is it really that bad? You know what, fuck that guy, he doesn’t need that money!”
This has implications because social media is basically one gigantic group aggregator. And you don’t have to look far to see rampant “ends justify the means” reasoning going on, often with horrible results. In the new article, I talk about how “connecting the world” is, on paper, a noble goal. It just comes with a lot of unintended side effects. Chalk this up as one of them.
3. Shitty leaders make for shitty people – And while we’re talking about the moral consequences of grouping millions of people together, we might as well bring up one of the oldest and most controversial findings in psychology: the fact that most people will easily commit an unethical act if directed to by someone in charge.
This was the finding of the controversial Milgram Experiments in the 1960s, where it was discovered that people who, individually, were non-violent would gladly inflict pain on others if ordered by an authority. People have argued against the validity of these results, but the findings continue to be supported even today.
Why does this matter? Well, just spitballing here, but if grouping up the world alters the balance of our ethical reasoning, it makes sense that we would start to select less ethical leaders. And with less ethical leaders, it would then follow that their followers would be more easily directed into unethical acts.
How’s that for a bright and cheery Monday?
Until next week,