Apr 4, 2019

The snap decision society

Illustration of a mob holding iPhones and iPads featuring images of pitchforks and fire

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Pervasive partisanship and rapid-fire social media echo chambers have exacerbated our tendency to jump to conclusions — about everything from Joe Biden's behavior to a student's encounter with a Native American man at a rally to the Mueller report.

Why it matters: Making assumptions is an age-old human flaw, but it is being worsened by the challenges of responding to an increasingly complex world at warp speed. Research shows the social media ecosystem can lead to snap judgments, even based on incomplete information, to reinforce emotional identities and ideological positions.

One of the latest examples played out this week when Stephanie Carter, wife of former Defense Secretary Ash Carter, explained a 2015 photo showing former Vice President Joe Biden standing behind her with his hands on her shoulders, appearing to speak into her ear.

  • The photo made the media rounds after separate allegations of unwelcome behavior from Biden.
  • Assumptions about the circumstances behind the photo went so viral that Carter wrote a Medium post to set the record straight and "reclaim" her story "from strangers, Twitter, the pundits and the late-night hosts."
  • The real story, she said, is that while her husband was giving remarks after his swearing in, Biden "leaned in to tell me 'thank you for letting him do this' and kept his hands on my shoulders as a means of offering his support," she wrote.
  • "But a still shot taken from a video — misleadingly extracted from what was a longer moment between close friends — sent out in a snarky tweet — came to be the lasting image of that day."

Other examples show how easily narratives catch fire online based on incidents that most of us didn't see firsthand:

  • Covington Catholic students: Media outlets, celebrities and social media jumped on a viral videotaped encounter between a Native American man and high school boys that suggested a clash of racial and ideological differences. But that narrative was thrown into question when more complete video footage emerged.
  • Feinstein on Green New Deal: A video showed a conversation between Sen. Dianne Feinstein and young activists encouraging her to support the Green New Deal. In a shortened clip, she appeared dismissive of their concerns. A longer video that later surfaced shows the fuller dialogue that includes her offering an internship to one of them.
  • The Mueller report: Big victory for President Trump, if you're a Republican. Or a colossal letdown, if you're a Democrat. The one thing both sides have in common: Neither has seen the report.

Viral internet: Everyone has encountered a too-good-to-be-true story on social media, whether it's viral outrage or viral feel good. Most of the people sharing it have no idea whether it's true, and most of them never see the eventual fact checks.

Today's hyper-partisanship plays a big role in the internet's pile-on culture. It’s not uncommon for people to follow political cues to save mental energy.

  • Instead of making the effort to parse complicated information to form their own opinion, people rely on the stance of those with whom they often agree as a cognitive shortcut. Sites like Twitter and Facebook make those shortcuts incredibly easy to find.
  • Recent research shows political cues are most influential for those who strongly identify with a particular party and are motivated to express that partisanship.

This sort of feedback loop reinforces polarization and, in turn, outrage. There are a few reasons for this, according to Molly Crockett, a psychology professor at Yale University.

  • Expressing outrage online can signal trustworthiness or "moral quality," driving disapproving hot takes to ricochet within echo chambers.
  • Social media reduces the costs of expressing moral outrage. It takes less effort, and there are fewer risks of retaliation because you're behind a screen and part of a large crowd.

This can be empowering for marginalized voices speaking out on injustices such as #MeToo and #BlackLivesMatter. But it can also lead to disproportionate levels of punishment in an ecosystem that promotes the most outrageous content.

"News algorithms on social media select for content that's most likely to draw engagement, and research has shown that strongly emotional content is most likely to be shared — particularly content that evokes moral emotions like outrage. This means the content we encounter online might be disproportionately likely to trigger outrage."
— Molly Crocket, psychology professor at Yale University
Go deeper