Scientists Say Social Media Is A Risk To Humanity

Social media has completely changed the way we communicate in an incredibly short period of time. We can research and share information faster than ever before, guided by algorithms most of us don’t understand.

Unfortunately, humans are error-prone and biased and while that doesn’t mean that algorithms are in control, it does mean that technology is making a big contribution to important personal decisions.

Increasingly, a range of scientists from different disciplines, plus some  journalists and political activists have been raising concerns about how social media is affecting our democracy, mental health and relationships.

Now a recent paper published in the prestigious US science journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Science (PNAS), titled examines human global collective behavior from a biological perspective. 

Seventeen researchers who specialise in widely different fields, from climate science to philosophy, make the case that academics should treat the study of technology’s large-scale impact on society as a “crisis discipline.” A crisis discipline is a field in which scientists across different fields work quickly to address an urgent societal problem, like how conservation biology tries to protect endangered species or climate science research aims to stop global warming. 

The paper argues that our lack of understanding about the collective behavioral effects of new technology is a danger to democracy and scientific progress.

For example, the paper says that tech companies have “fumbled their way through the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, unable to stem the ‘infodemic’ of misinformation” that has hindered widespread acceptance of masks and vaccines. “Recent and emerging technologies such as online social media are no exception, both the structure of our social networks and the patterns of information flow through them are directed by engineering decisions made to maximise profitability. These changes are drastic, opaque, effectively unregulated, and massive in scale,” says the paper.

The authors warn that if left misunderstood and unchecked, we could see unintended consequences of new technology contributing to phenomena such as “election tampering, disease, violent extremism, famine, racism, and war.”

It’s a grave warning and call to action by an unusually diverse swath of scholars across disciplines, and their collaboration indicates how concerned they are. “A consolidated trans disciplinary approach to understanding and managing human collective behavior will be a monumental challenge, yet it is a necessary one. Given that algorithms and companies are already altering our global patterns of behavior for financial reasons, there is no safe hands-off approach, “ says the paper.

PNAS:        Y Combinator:      VOX:        Futurism:       Flipboard:    RTE:     Image: Unsplash

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