Just Because It’s On The Internet Doesn’t Make It True

Lee Rannals for redOrbit.com — Your Universe Online

Researchers from the University of Copenhagen found web tools and social media may actually amplify irrational group behavior.

The Internet has essentially provided a gateway to almost all the knowledge available in the world, but sometimes having this tool also causes us to get ahead of ourselves. Researchers combined formal philosophy, social psychology and decision theory to understand how web tools can cause us to fall into false belief with things.

“Group behavior that encourages us to make decisions based on false beliefs has always existed. However, with the advent of the internet and social media, this kind of behavior is more likely to occur than ever, and on a much larger scale, with possibly severe consequences for the democratic institutions underpinning the information societies we live in,” says professor of philosophy at the University of Copenhagen Vincent F. Hendricks.

The team wrote in the journal Metaphilosophy about how they analyzed a number of social information processes that were enhanced by modern information technology. They used a book entitled Love Letters of Great Men and Women: From the 18th Century to the Present Day as an example of group behavior set in an online context.

Hendricks said a scene in the movie Sex and the City helped to generate huge interest in this long forgotten book. During the scene, the main character, Carrie Bradshaw, reads a book entitled Love Letters of Great Men, which does not exist.

“So, when fans of the movie searched for this book, Amazon‘s search engine suggested Love Letters of Great Men and Women instead, which made a lot of people buy a book they did not want. Then Amazon’s computers started pairing the book with Sex and the City merchandise, and the old book sold in great numbers,” said Hendricks. “This is known as an ‘informational cascade’ in which otherwise rational individuals base their decisions not only on their own private information, but also on the actions of those who act before them. The point is that, in an online context, this can take on massive proportions and result in actions that miss their intended purpose.”

He said although buying the wrong book doesn’t have serious consequences, it does show the power of what could happen when allowing our decision-making power to be defined by information technologies and processes.

“In group polarization, which is well-documented by social psychologists, an entire group may shift to a more radical viewpoint after a discussion even though the individual group members did not subscribe to this view prior to the discussion. This happens for a number of reasons – one is that group members want to represent themselves in a favorable light in the group by adopting a viewpoint slightly more extreme than the perceived mean,” Hendricks said.

He added that in online forums, this phenomenon is made more problematic by the fact discussions take place in settings where group members are fed only the information that fits their worldview.

“If we value democratic discussion and deliberation, we should apply rigorous analysis, from a variety of disciplines, to the workings of these online social information processes as they become increasingly influential in our information societies,” Vincent suggested.