By Shirin Ghaffary
A group of 17 researchers across disciplines from biology to philosophy published a paper arguing that the impacts of social media should be treated as a “crisis discipline.”
Social media has drastically restructured the way we communicate in an incredibly short period of time. We can discover, “Like,” click on, and share information faster than ever before, guided by algorithms most of us don’t quite understand.
And while some social scientists, journalists, and activists have been raising concerns about how this is affecting our democracy, mental health, and relationships, we haven’t seen biologists and ecologists weighing in as much.
That’s changed with a new paper published in the prestigious science journal PNAS earlier this month, titled “Stewardship of global collective behavior.”
Seventeen researchers who specialize 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. 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.
Recode spoke with the lead author of the paper, Joe Bak-Coleman, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Washington Center for an Informed Public , as well as co-author Carl Bergstrom, a biology professor at the University of Washington, to better understand this call for a paradigm shift in how scientists study the technology we use every day.
The two interviews have been combined and lightly edited for length and clarity.
Shirin Ghaffary: You tweeted that this paper is one of the most important ones you’ve published yet. Why?
Carl Bergstrom: My original background is in infectious disease epidemiology, respiratory viruses. And so I was able to do some stuff that’s reasonably important during Covid. What I’m doing there is really filling in the details in a well-established framework. So it’s more, you know, dotting the i’s and crossing the t’s.
And I think what’s really important about this paper is that it’s not doing that at all. It’s saying, “Here’s a massive problem, and the way to conceptualize it, that is critically important for the future. “
And, you know, it’s suggesting an alarm going off upstairs. It’s a call to arms. It’s saying, “Hey, we’ve got to solve this problem, and we don’t have a lot of time.”
Shirin Ghaffary: And what is that problem? What are you sounding the alarm bell on?
Carl Bergstrom: My sense is that social media in particular — as well as a broader range of internet technologies, including algorithmically driven search and click-based advertising — have changed the way that people get information and form opinions about the world.
“There’s no reason why good information will rise to the top of any ecosystem we’ve designed” —Carl Bergstrom
And they seem to have done so in a manner that makes people particularly vulnerable to the spread of misinformation and disinformation.
Just as one example: A paper — a poorly done research paper — can come out suggesting that hydroxychloroquine might be a treatment for Covid. And in a matter of days, you have world leaders promoting it, and people struggling to get [this medicine], and it being no longer available to people who need it for treatment of other conditions. Which is actually a serious health problem.
So you can have these bits of misinformation that explode at unprecedented velocity in ways that they wouldn’t have prior to this information ecosystem.
[Now], you can create large communities of people that hold constellations of beliefs that are not grounded in reality, such as [the conspiracy theory] QAnon. You can have ideas like anti-vaccination ideas spread in new ways. You can create polarization in new ways.
And [you can] create an information environment where misinformation seems to spread organically. And also [these communities can] be extremely vulnerable to targeted disinformation. We don’t even know the scope of that yet.
Joe Bak-Coleman: The question we were trying to answer was, “What can we infer about the course of society at scale, given what we know about complex systems?”
It’s kind of how we use mice models or flies to understand neuroscience. Part of this came back to animal societies — namely groups — to understand what they tell us about collective behavior in general, but also complex systems more broadly.
So our goal is to take that perspective and then look at human society with that. And one of the things about complex systems is they have a finite limit to perturbation. If you disturb them too much, they change. And they often tend to fail catastrophically, unexpectedly, without warning.
We see this in financial markets — all of a sudden, they crash out of nowhere.
Carl Bergstrom: My hope is very much that this [paper] will sort of galvanize people. The issues that are in this paper are ones that people have been thinking about from many, many different fields. It’s not like these are new issues entirely.
It’s rather that I think this paper will hopefully really highlight the magnitude of what’s happened and the urgency of fixing it. Hopefully, it’ll galvanize some kind of transdisciplinary collaborations.
So it’s important because it says this needs to be a crisis discipline, this is something that we don’t understand. We don’t have a theory for how all of these changes are affecting the way that people come to form their beliefs and opinions, and then use those to make decisions. And yet, that’s all changing. It’s happening. …
There’s a misperception that we’re saying, “Exposure to ads is bad — that’s causing the harm.” That’s not what we’re saying. Exposure to ads may or may not be bad. What we’re concerned about is the fact that this information ecosystem has developed to optimize something orthogonal to things that we think are extremely important, like being concerned about the veracity of information or the effect of information on human well-being, on democracy, on health, on the ecosystem.
The paper argues that our lack of understanding about the collective behavioral effects of new technology is a danger to democracy and scientific progress.
Those issues are just being left to sort themselves out, without a whole lot of thought or guidance around them. That puts it in this crisis discipline space. It’s like climate science where you don’t have time to sit down and work out everything definitively. This paper is essentially saying something quite similar — that we don’t have time to wait. We need to start addressing these problems now.
Shirin Ghaffary: What do you say to the people who think this is not really a crisis and argue that people had similar concerns when the printing press came out that now seem alarmist?
Carl Bergstrom: Well, with the printing press, I would push back. The printing press came out and upended history. We’re still recovering from the capacity that the printing press gave to Martin Luther. The printing press radically changed the political landscape in Europe. And, you know, depending on whose histories you go by, you had decades if not centuries of war [after it was introduced].
So, did we somehow recover? Sure we did. Would it have been better to do it in a stewarded way? I don’t know. Maybe. These major transitions in information technology often cause collateral damage. We tend to hope that they also bring about a tremendous amount of good as we move toward human knowledge and all of that. But even the fact that you’ve survived doesn’t mean that it’s not worth thinking about how to get through it smoothly.
It reminds me of one of the least intelligent critiques of the [Covid-19] vaccines that we’re using now: “We didn’t have vaccines during the Black Death plague. And we’re still here.” We are, but it took out a third of the population of Europe.
Shirin Ghaffary: Right, so there is pain and suffering that happened with all those transformational technologies as well.