Monday, 3 June 2013

How bad ideas can get momentium (and how social media helps this)

Reading twitter, comments on newspapers and phones in shows in TV or the radio perhaps the most striking thing is the sheer level ignorance of many people. This perhaps isn't as that surprising. Most people have busy lives with families, work, education (often on top of work or work on top of education) and hobbies. Spending your spare team reading up on esoteric aspects of government policy is not exactly many people cup of tea. 
Building up an informed opinion is also very hard work. Generally you need to start with a philosophical view (e.g. what type of society you want to make). Although people will have different views, the majority will probably have somewhat similar objectives  (e.g. a growing economic with the proceeds of wealth fairly distributed amongst the population). However the difficulty is determining how such an object can be met. This involces understanding the nature of the problem, the dynamics around it and understanding both constraints and how this issue needs to fit with other priorities.

Gathering facts and statistics even now a time consuming activity. Often the data available (and even more so the publicly available data) is a subset of that required to understand the problem. Equally facts can be misleading when looked at in isolation. A good example is the (often stated) fact that the UK runs a trade deficit with the EU. Superficially this implies the bargaining power sits with the UK. However a moderately deeper understanding of the relative volumes of trade shows that 50% of UK exports go to the EU and less than 10% of the average EU countries exports go the the UK.

Facts by themselves are often useless without and understanding of how things are likely to change in the future. For example death from infectious diseases in the UK tend to be quite low, however, if the uptake of vaccines were to drop then potentially there could be significant outbreak of dangerous infectious diseases (indeed we are seeing this now post the Wakefield case). Judging the dynamics of a situation is difficult and requires a understanding of how different factors are likely to play out. In complex systems its often difficult to make long term predictions and determine which effects will "win out" even with accurate measurements (this is why long range weather forecasts are notoriously inaccurate).

Measuring dynamic effects is almost impossible (its often hard to see trends for the noise). Typically such effects can only be inferred bias on an understanding of the problem. Here however many experts struggle to avoid personal biases. For example right wing pundits will often claim state benefits encourage idleness which damages productively - Effectively they are claiming a dynamic effect (that overtime people's willingness to live off the state increases). Likewise left-wing pundits are likely to make similar claims about bankers and regulation.

Then there are the human and social factors, which are an extension of the dynamic factors (these introduce additional levels of complexity). A change in the law or spending priorities aimed at solving a problem in one area is likely to have knock on effects elsewhere. Crude laws aimed at curtailing offensive speech could easily have unintended consequences blocking legitimate criticisms of people in power. Equally over invest in solving social problems could result in perverse incentives.

To make matters worse our brains are not evolved for making complex policy judgments. Instead we have well developed monkey brains that are often quick to draw instinctive judgments. Such judgments (such as being distrustful of outsiders) might have been useful in the past (when a chance meeting with a neighbouring tribe could easily have fatal consequences), however, often they are not as useful in the modern context.

Its therefore hardly surprising that many people hold uninformed opinions don't stand up to much scrutiny. Most people simply don't have the time to gather the data, analyse it and produce meaningful opinions which are intellectually coherent. However the real problem with uninformed opinions is when they start to go viral. Often you start with a meme based on a half truth and which plays to people innate fears/hope. Once this meme has gained enough momentum - populists, demagogues and  polemicists using it as a mechanism to gain power and influence against "the establishment". This leads to the formation of a ground swell of opinions which in turn leads to pundits and intellectuals who try to justify this intellectual fraud.

Into this mix comes social media. Many claim that it makes participation easier. This is certainly true for people who perhaps wouldn't have had access to politicians in the past. However it also creates lots of noise as people let of steam with their poorly formed opinions. This in itself isn't anything new but social media can enable like minded to congregate quickly (and not always for the betterment of society as the recent riots have demonstrated). Many embrace social media (and to some extent this is necessary as it is here to stay), however the fear has to be that social media will end up being little than a platform for  bigots and "swivel eyed loons" to demand they be listened to and their opinions be taken seriously.

Unfortunately not all opinions are equal nor valid. If ultimately social media is to be a force for good then it needs to become more than a platform people people to shout 140 character slogans at one another and more a tool for collaboration (so people can build up ideas and learn from one another). In the business world such tools are slowly starting to emerge so that teams can easily share information.  Equally in the public web wikipedia has shown what is possible through open source development and collaboration. Therefore I suspect  the biggest challenge with social media isn’t getting people engaged but actually rather the opposite… getting people to engage where they can focus their efforts and really add value.

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