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.

Nobody’s watching the Democratic debates. Does it matter?

Just 1.9% of Americans watched the Dec. 19 Democratic presidential debate.

APTOPIX Election 2020 Debate

The way things are going, the audience for the 10th and last 2020 Democratic Party presidential debate on Feb. 24, 2020 will be zero.

A total of 15.26 million viewers watched the first debate on June 26, 2019. By the most recent debate on Dec. 19, the number of viewers had sunk like a stone to 6.17 million.

That’s a miniscule 1.9% of Americans.

But it doesn’t matter. What really matters is how the media of all types, particularly social media, interpret the debates to the public and grab elements of the debates to advance agendas.

Social media is the dominant influencer because:

  • National television news has a steadily shrinking audience. In the 2016 presidential race between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, only 10 percent of people said national nightly network television news was the most helpful news source.
  • Print newspapers have a steadily shrinking audience. Total circulation of U.S. daily newspapers today, for a U.S. population of 329 million, is less than in 1940, when the U.S. population was 132 million. In the 2016 presidential election, as many people named late night comedy shows as most helpful for political news as named a print newspaper.
  • Local TV news tends to focus on murders, fires, car crashes and the weather, not presidential politics.

Regardless of the issues discussed by the 10 Democrats during the 120 minutes of the second night of the first debate on June 27, 2019, it was a terse exchange between Kamala Harris and Joe Biden about busing that dominated subsequent coverage of the debate and online discussion. “Kamala Harris attacks Joe Biden’s record on busing and working with segregationists in vicious exchange at Democratic debate”  proclaimed the CNBC headline.

Similarly, regardless of the consequential issues discussed by the seven Democrats during the 120 minutes of the Dec. 19 debate, the media, including social media, focused on:

  • Who “won” the debate.
  • Assertions that “the knives came out” for Pete Buttigieg.
  • The vile wine cave.  Elizabeth Warren castigated Buttigieg for holding a fundraiser with rich people in a Napa Valley “wine cave.” Politico reporter Natasha Korecki said that was “the most entertaining” part of the debate. “ The conservative National Review headline read, “Biden Cruises and Buttigieg Takes Fire in the Wine Cave Debate.” The left-leaning Mother Jones said, “The “Wine Cave” Debate Was One of the Campaign’s Most Consequential Arguments.” And the story still has legs. On Sunday, Dec. 22, the New York Times ran a story relating the frustration and disappointment of the wine cave’s owners, both of whom are active Democrats, at being thrust into the public eye in such a negative manner.
  • Elizabeth Warren’s statement that economists are “just wrong” when they argue her proposals for trillions in new taxes will stifle growth and investment.
  • It was a testy night. “The political press, always thirsty for conflict, pounced,” the Columbia Journalism Review noted. “In a push notification, the New York Times alerted readers that we’d seen a “contentious evening”; Dan Balz, of the Washington Postnoted that a “collegial start” had given way to “fireworks.” There was talk of gloves coming offpummeling, and slugfests, and that was just from Politico. Another Politico piece listed the “five most brutal onstage brawls” of the night, complete with a tally chart and boxing-glove emojis.”
  • Diversity is what matters. Time pointed out that the only non-white candidate on stage was Andrew Yang.“This forced the uncomfortable conversation about how the party that talks so big about including diverse voices and that depends on minority voters ended up with such a white set of candidates in a field that was, at one point, historically diverse,” Time said.

In any case, what the American public really cared about, some media observed, wasn’t the debate but the upcoming release of Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker. The first item in the Dec. 21, 2019 NY Times On Politics newsletter referenced this. “It appears nobody consulted the Jedi Council before scheduling a Democratic debate on the same night “Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker” opened, the newsletter noted.

Lots of folks have chimed in about all the debates on social media, but they’ve mostly talked to others in their bubble in response to algorithm-delivered news content. As noted in Towards a New Enlightenment? A Transcendent Decade“… the emergence of the political “Twitterverse,” … has become a locus of communication between politicians, citizens, and the press, has coarsened political discourse, fostered “rule by tweet,” and advanced the spread of misinformation.”


Twitter discourse on national politics also tends to be driven by a very small segment of the population. According to the Pew Research Center, Twitter dialogue by American adults about national politics is driven by a small number of prolific political tweeters. They make up only 6% of all U.S. adults with public accounts on the site, but account for 73% of tweets from American adults that mention national politics.

Furthermore, as a Knight Foundation study  put it, Twitter is “a distorted mirror of Americans’ political views,” because it is dominated by the center left, countered by the extreme right.

Facebook plays a major role in the political debate, too, and not in a good way. As the Columbia Journalism Review reported, “Facebook is a toxic town square.” And that makes it dangerous because, it’s a primary source of political news for a growing segment off the public. A recent study conducted by the Pew Research Center estimated, for example, that more than 60% of Americans got their information about the 2016 US presidential election on Facebook.

Instagram has a growing place in public perception of politics and the debates, too, and could be a flashpoint for online disinformation during the 2020 election. “Disinformation is increasingly based on images as opposed to text,” said Paul Barrett, the author of an NYU report that’s prompted a renewed look at the problem. “Instagram is obviously well-suited for that kind of meme-based activity.”

It’s an engagement powerhouse that attracts far younger users than its parent company, Facebook, according to the NYU report  The report cited a Senate Intelligence Committee report that noted the Internet Research Agency — which led Russia’s disinformation campaigns in the 2016 election — found more engagement on Instagram than any other platform.

So, does it matter whether  fewer and fewer people are actually watching the Democratic debates? Probably not.