How Social Media Tricks our Brains — and Destroys our Politics

Social media convinces us our small communities are representative of the whole and tells us we’re more right than we really are.

Aaron Ross Powell

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Why does Elon Musk believe so much obviously dumb stuff? Why does he credulously retweet–or reply to with “Interesting” or “This is worrying”–clear nonsense, conspiracy theories, easily disproved disinformation, and racist and anti-Semitic arguments? Why is Jack Dorsey all-in on RFK Jr.’s patently stupid and dangerous ideas?

One possible answer is that they really are as dumb as they seem, and that their dumbness, coupled with a preexisting affinity for right-wing fringe thinking, pulls them into those beliefs and inoculates them against correction. And there’s probably something to that. The more that Elon tweets, the more it becomes clear that while he might have above normal cognitive skills in some areas, critical thinking and information literacy aren’t among them.

But I want to pose another possibility, one that doesn’t preclude “they’re just dumb,” but gets at a particular kind of shoddy thinking they both have perhaps also fallen prey to — and afflicts many of the terminally online. Namely, the way that social media tricks us into thinking our small communities are representative of broader cultural beliefs, and how the idea of context collapse makes breaking free of this thinking more difficult.

I’m old enough that social media didn’t become a thing until after I was out of college. Twitter launched in 2006, the year I started law school. Facebook began a couple of years earlier, while I was working as a web developer after finishing undergrad. This means that my formative internet years were the late ’90s and very early 2000s, when instead of social media we had instant messaging and web forums.

One big difference between these and Twitter is that the former gave you access to far fewer people to interact with. Instant messaging was then, like now, mainly for a small circle of in-real-life friends. Web forums opened things up a bit — you were talking with a porous community instead of a tight-knit cluster — but, critically, unlike Reddit and other contemporary web forum analogues, each forum back…

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Aaron Ross Powell

Host of the ReImagining Liberty podcast. Writer and political ethicist. Former think tank scholar.