Rush to judgement: social media is eroding America’s social stability

“Let the jury consider their verdict,” the King said, for about the twentieth time that day. “No, no!” said the Queen. “Sentence first—verdict afterwards.” 

                Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll

In today’s venomous social media environment, hair-trigger public reactions based on fragmentary, often inaccurate, information are the new norm and are hastening the disintegration of civil society. 

On Sunday, Sept. 13, 2020, at about 4:30 PM, a Lancaster, PA police officer shot and killed a Black man. Twitter exploded in collective fury:

Valnjeffewsist@ValerieNygaard: Another murder by police today in Lancaster PA. 27 year old autistic man shot four times in the chest in front of mom.

RT @lancnick: Police shot and killed a reportedly autistic man in Southwest Lancaster City today and left his body on the ground for hours.

king of da souf@jlinmadison13: Lancaster police shot a 14 year old autistic boy 4 times!!!

All stirred up, protesters were off to the races, pouring into downtown Lancaster calling for “justice.” They hurled bottles and rocks at police officers, threw traffic barricades, planters and trash cans, piled up street signs, pieces of plywood and trash bags and set them on fire and damaged a county vehicle parked in front of a police station. When the protesters ignored police orders to disperse, tear gas was deployed.

Lancaster, PA protesters, Sept. 13, 2020

The Twitter outrage continued the next day.

Sarah Meets@MeetsSarah: #LANCASTER How much of taxpayer dollars fund the police?…WHY, WHY are people getting not just shot but fucking MOWED DOWN LIKE THE CARTEL DOES by 7-10-20 bullets?? WTF is this?

As is so often the case, the reality of the shooting was quite different. It turned out that a Lancaster police officer had gone to the home of a woman who had called 911 to say her brother, 27-year-old Ricardo Munoz, was being aggressive with her mother and trying to break into her house. When the officer arrived at the scene, the man ran out of the house holding a knife and chased the police officer. The officer fired several shots, killing the man. 

All of this was captured in video footage released by the Lancaster police department. But the damage had been done.

People everywhere are becoming alarmed, or pretending to be alarmed, by real and imagined crises pushed on social media with increasing frequency, often by malicious actors. And since social media algorithms drive repetitious messages that conform to our biases, people are more likely to believe things to which they’ve been exposed repeatedly.

In a Fast Company articleHow Your Brain Keeps You Believing Crap That Isn’t TrueBob Nease wrote “…what counts as common knowledge is a mix of things that are true and other things that are false, all of which are believed because they’re widely held, frequently repeated, and routinely recalled.”  Nease calls this “fluency as a surrogate for truth.”

All this is leading to informational cascade effects as the messages of alarmists spread far and wide, magnified by celebrities, journalists and commentators, corrupting the entire chain of communications.

“The public and the media may then become less willing to publicly challenge ascendant beliefs due to a social mechanism called a reputational cascade, Matthew Blackwell wrote in Quillette“Reputational cascades behave like informational cascades, but the underlying motivation is different—people publicly embrace the beliefs of others out of social necessity rather than genuine belief.”  

In an age of alternate realities, “the devastating irony of the present moment is that for all of our near-limitless access to knowledge, the truth is not merely inaccessible, but perpetually transformed into an up-for-grabs commodity,” writes Jason Clemence, assistant professor of humanities at Regis College. And as the information load increases, it gets harder to distinguish high-quality from low-quality information, too often resulting in the propagation of misleading information and outright falsehoods.

The shooting of Michael Brown is a classic case of how social media is exploited to launder false or misleading information into public discourse and increase public discord. 

Demonstrators protest outside the Ferguson, Missouri, police department during the National March on Ferguson, August 30, 2014. (Photo credit – Michael B. Thomas/AFP/Getty Images)

After the August 9, 2014 shooting death of Michael Brown by police officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson, Missouri, a St Louis suburb, the story quickly spread on social media that he died while attempting to surrender and that he had his hands raised as he pleaded with Wilson not to shoot him. “Hands up, don’t shoot” became the immediate rallying cry of protesters and the mantra of a movement.

The day after Brown’s death, protests, riots, looting and arson erupted in the vicinity of the shooting and across Ferguson.

But there are two glaring problems with this story. Brown never surrendered with his hands up, and two state investigations, as well as one by President Obama’s Justice Department, concluded that Wilson was justified in shooting Brown.

Still, major media continue to this day to refer to Michael Brown’s death as “murder” and to describe him as “an unarmed black teenager.” Challenging the “Hands up, don’t shoot” narrative in Brown’s case still risks harsh criticism or censure.

On social media, hearsay and rumor dominate and “facts” are only relevant if they reinforce an ideological predisposition. Not only that, but everybody involved in the ongoing debate is expected to choose a side without hesitation, with no further research and no further deliberation.

That is leading to an erosion of social stability that threatens the cohesion of the United States. Instead of being bound together by a shared reality, we are moving toward a society in which individual citizens care only about their own interests and those of others who are like-minded, where there is no common morality and the concept of individual sacrifice for the common good is dismissed as out-of-date.

That will put our democracy at risk.

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