I’m quite open to arguments on either side, but as a general matter, I find this line of reasoning from Brendan Nyhan disconcerting:
Research (including my own) suggests the need to carefully evaluate the effectiveness of Facebook’s interventions.
Yale’s Gordon Pennycook and David Rand offer two principal warnings. First, the effects of exposure to false information are not easily countered by labeling, as they find in a paper they wrote with Tyrone D. Cannon. False information we have previously encountered feels more familiar, producing a feeling of fluency that causes us to rate it as more accurate than information we have not seen before. This effect persists even when Facebook-style warnings label a headline “disputed.” We should be cautious about assuming that labels tagging articles as false are enough to prevent misinformation on social media from affecting people’s beliefs.
I feel we should be cautious about using broad brush attempts to alter people’s beliefs, and even more so with altering other people’s ability to alter beliefs.
The fact that people believe weird and wacky things that their friends also believe seems to me to be a staple feature of human society. I’d go so far as to say that people generally are less interested in whether or not their beliefs are true in some deep sense, than whether or not they are appropriate. That is, folks want to believe what someone in their social situation is expected to believe. This sort of reflexive belief system – I want to believe what you believe I believe – is probably highly adaptive for creating in-group cohesion.
It also has large and persistent costs in modern democratic society. However, they are the types of costs that we have been dealing with since the foundation of democracy. Social media makes those costs more blatant, but its not clear that they make them any worse. Indeed, some research suggests the opposite:
We combine nine previously proposed measures to construct an index of political polarization among US adults. We find that the growth in polarization in recent years is largest for the demographic groups least likely to use the internet and social media. For example, our overall index and eight of the nine individual measures show greater increases for those older than 75 than for those aged 18–39. These facts argue against the hypothesis that the internet is a primary driver of rising political polarization.
It’s not just, however, that social media may not be as bad as we think; it’s that generally speaking, this is a persistent and pervasive phenomenon that our democracy has grown up around and we should be wary of heavy handed attempts to weed it out.