Why are folks so upset, or should I say, triggered?
After the announcement of Elon Musk buying Twitter, I expected a negative reaction from certain quarters, but I certainly didn’t see this coming. Just to recap, when it was announced that Elon Musk was making an offer to buy Twitter, Mr. Musk explained himself, as follows
“Free speech is the bedrock of a functioning democracy, and Twitter is the digital town square where matters vital to the future of humanity are debated. I also want to make Twitter better than ever by enhancing the product with new features, making the algorithms open source to increase trust, defeating the spam bots, and authenticating all humans. Twitter has tremendous potential -- I look forward to working with the company and the community of users to unlock it."
Seems benign to most thinking people, but apparently not. There must be something really bad in what he said, right?
Disclaimer: After spending four years at a private high school in New Orleans, I “strutted off” to Louisiana State University, firmly believing that I was one of the elites. It only took two days to bring me down to earth, and thank God for that. I arrived at my Intro to Engineering class, only to be greeted by Jeff Spicoli’s doppelganger - bare feet, wife beater, and skateboard. Suffice it to say my worldview was rocked when he instantly showed himself to be the smartest dude in class. Reeling from that, as I wandered back to my dorm, still dazed, I heard shouting coming from the alley near the student union. This wasn’t any ordinary alley, it was “Free Speech Alley”, a place where anything went, and boy was that right. Although I missed the famous David Duke days of the 70s, the topics discussed were just as relevant to me. And although I fervently disagreed with many a speaker, I never once thought of abusing them, cancelling them, or in any way shutting down their speech. It was very exhilarating to hear opposing viewpoints for a change.
Before attempting to put forth rational discussion on what appears to be irrational behavior, it is important to briefly discuss how we got here. Twitter started in 2006 as an SMS (Short Message Service) to allow friends to share short messages. Private equity entered the picture in 2008, and we all know what that means - every decision would be weighed against its profit potential. The first group to take to Twitter were celebrities, followed closely by politicians, which makes good sense, as both of these groups are about creating illusions in winning favor. The real trouble started when the “journalists” began to use Twitter as a mechanism to deliver breaking news. So we have this lovely triumvirate of virtue to help lead Twitter to financial success.
Several technological advancements were tried in an effort to increase users, which in turn would increase revenue - Moments, Fleets, Spaces - all of which didn’t move the needle. And then Twitter struck gold - ALGORITHMS! I must admit that the first version of the algorithms may not have been intended to be harmful - they were merely used to replace the chronological timeline with an algorithmic timeline that was used to display popular and favored tweets first in the timeline, all in an effort to attract more users to Twitter (remember the whole profit thing?)
Just as the road to Hell is paved with good intentions, the algorithms took the same road. And it really isn’t that surprising - what happens when all you see on your Twitter feed is like-minded content from people who look and think like you? You guessed it - good old confirmation bias. The same bias that causes all of us to gravitate to our favorite news sources - we literally want our biases to be confirmed, over and over again. This is a natural psychological phenomenon, working subconsciously to undermine our ability to think critically. However, if you have the ability to think critically, you are quick to recognize confirmation bias, easily rectifying the situation. But what about those folks who don’t have this skill? What do they do? Do they just scream at the sky? Short answer is yes. But why?
As confirmation bias is reinforced on a hourly basis, beliefs become so entrenched that they are raised to a religious level. They become symbols of virtue to others holding the same belief and symbols of ridicule to those on the opposite side of the issue. Imagine if you held such a belief, and one day you were presented evidence contrary to your belief. At a subconscious level, every human being in this situation would experience discomfort, due to the disharmony created by the new evidence. Psychologists use the term cognitive dissonance to describe this situation, wherein our cognitive, or thinking self, is in a state of disharmony. We all have to deal with cognitive dissonance in our lives - it is what helps us grow. As a young engineering student, I had no idea I was experiencing cognitive dissonance, but I do know that I relieved the discomfort by accepting the fact that I wasn’t the second coming. It didn’t mean that I wasn’t chapped at all those teachers from high school - every time I get an email for a donation, I flash back to that scene. Elite, my ass! Where was I - oh, what happens to those who can’t resolve the cognitive dissonance?
The first person to propose the theory of cognitive dissonance was Leon Festinger(1957), who was quoted as saying
A man with conviction is a hard man to change. Tell him you disagree and he turns away. Show him facts or figures and he questions your sources. Appeal to logic and he fails to see your point.
Sounds interesting, doesn’t it? The final point hits home the most with me - how can someone fail to see the logic right in front of their face? A recent article introduced an interesting explanation for all the hand wringing and sky screaming - the Backfire Effect(Cognitive dissonance and the Backfire Effect). When faced with the discomfort from cognitive dissonance, a person can choose one of two paths - 1) understand the disconnect, take in the new evidence, and change, or 2) refuse to ingest the new evidence and formulate new evidence (real or imagined) to bolster the belief - in essence, doubling down on the belief. The latter is called the Backfire Effect, which causes seemingly rational people to go to irrational ends without even being conscious of it. My parents always told me to give people the benefit of the doubt, and in this case, I will assume that these latest sky screamers are merely experiencing the Backfire Effect. How else could someone go from praising Elon Musk as the savior of the environment with Tesla to literally being Joseph Goebbels in a mere instant? And not to belabor the point, but think back at the many instances of the Backfire Effect with our last president. Maybe some people actually thought he was Adolf Hitler? That’s some serious doubling, quadrupling down!
Now that we understand what is going on, how do we deal with it? Elon Musk has chosen to deal with it by buying Twitter, and although all the uproar has been centered around his “free speech absolutist” comments, the real game changer will be the algorithms. His only comments about the algorithms were that they will be open and transparent. And for me, that is enough, as the user community will dictate the direction of any changes in the algorithms. It is my opinion that the algorithms are mostly responsible for the great divide in our society - wouldn’t it be great if the algorithms could start the healing? Finally, the word genius gets thrown around way too much these days, but perhaps Elon Musk has a genius idea - by allowing the public to determine if changes are needed to the algorithms, he could start to heal society while making a few bucks in the process. If Twitter was truly a “Free Speech Alley”, imagine how many people would participate? I did my part - I signed up yesterday!