Why People Share Articles on Social Media

People rarely share articles to spread knowledge. More often they don't care about the details. They just care if the way the article made them feel matches the way they feel about the general topic.

This is why it's hard for people to keep a grip on facts, reason, or even basic journalism principles in an age when outrage, emotional responses, and clickbait are more important than fact, fairness, and judgement.

Even worse, it's a self-perpetuating cycle. People don't go on social media to read the articles. They want to feel outraged - or less often, happy - for their loose group of friends. (Although in many cases, those friendships aren't even close to real - it's like bar friends. With some rare exceptions, those friendships dissolve away the moment you stop drinking - not exactly the kind of people you could rely on to help hide a body).

Argue against those articles? That person's identity is now tied into them, so you'll get push-back. They weren't posting about the article - they were posting about how they personally felt, so attacking the article on its factual basis is seen as an attack on them. You'll likely get a stream of external data points supporting why no, the article is correct. (This is a form of post-hoc rationalization).

Or you'll be told "No, you're wrong... this list of things you're not party or privy to from the poster's personal life are why the article is correct" - even though the article has nothing to do with the person. Those reasons may be why they posted it, but the two are separate things - even if they're now in a state of quantum entanglement.

This is something I've seen before. In the Bush era, inventing stories was rife. Pre-Facebook, on places like Digg, my mantra was "Look, the asshat does enough things that are fact that you can skewer him on - why do you need to invent stuff? It just undermines your argument". For the record, I was anti-Bush. But I'm pro fairness and factual honesty in debate.

We're way past those times - not because anything has changed, but because our flow of information is so dense that no-one has time to verify and check every aspect of what they post.

Even worse, as a culture, we appear to be willing to take on aspects of what the Scientologists would call "fair game" - if someone is othered, and seen as the enemy, it's okay to do whatever is necessary to take them down.

Recently I've seen many people on the internet saying things about due process and the concept of "innocent unless proven guilty" that "this doesn't apply here... we're not in court!".

The EU has decided otherwise recently, saying that innocent until proven guilty is actually upheld even in public fora. This is a compelling argument, for one simple bedrock reason:

We are the court. We are the government. Little c, little g. All government is, is people getting together in groups to decide how we all act together. All court is, is how those decisions are enforced. So yes, this stuff matters. Look at the Salem Witch Trials for examples of how things can spiral out of control if we don't hold ourselves to a singular, well-considered standard.

Throw into this mix another problem:

It's easy to assume that everyone is by nature good, and in any situation, will do the best that they can do with the options given to them. This is a concept that came out of psychology in the US in the early 1960s.

There's a problem here: It's a concept which is objectively and scientifically untrue. It's fantastic in a therapy session when you're trying to work with a good person through some of their issues, and let them know that they're not innately evil - because even good people do bad things occasionally - but it was never meant to be slathered around as a general statement of pop-psychology pablum that applies in every situation.

Sociopaths, for example, don't follow the rules, and we know how prevalent they are in society. Mentally disturbed people don't follow the rules - because their thought processes are broken. Bad actors exist. Not everyone is good bar their own personal circumstances. Some people really are manipulative, some people really do put personal gain above right and wrong. There's always another mark, and there's always another grifter looking to make a quick buck from an unwitting stooge.

All I'm saying is measure twice, cut once, and know your cognitive biases and fallacies. In a world where empathy has been weaponized, slow your roll.

About the author

Simon Cooke is an occasional video game developer, ex-freelance journalist, screenwriter, film-maker, musician, and software engineer in Seattle, WA.

The views posted on this blog are his and his alone, and have no relation to anything he's working on, his employer, or anything else and are not an official statement of any kind by them (and barely even one by him most of the time).

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