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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.
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 in the ’90s was its own server, running its own instance of whatever forum software the admin chose, and living at its own domain.
An effect of this was that, conceptually, it was very clear that you were in a corner of the internet, interacting with a small community. It wasn’t “The Internet,” but instead whoever signed up for your little forum. You knew that while your forum might have its own set of shared assumptions, communication norms, and accepted arguments, they weren’t universal. They were unique—or largely unique—to your corner of the internet.
Social media broke that understanding.
First, it radically increased the number of people we could reach and converse with on a single platform. You went from however many people had signed up for your small community web forum to hundreds of millions, all just a search, retweet, and follow away. But the same is true of centrally hosted forums, like Reddit. Everyone is on reddit.com, even if they’re interacting in forum-like subreddits. What makes Twitter distinct, and I believe explains why it can lead to the kind of bad thinking I have in mind, is that, unlike Reddit, Twitter doesn’t feel siloed.
When you use Twitter (or Bluesky, Mastodon, or another similar platform), you don’t join a hosted community the way you do at Reddit, nor do you sign up for entirely distinct servers the way you did with the old web forums. Instead, you join Twitter, and then you follow people and start having conversations with them. From an individual perspective, they’re simply using Twitter. The home feed is Twitter, the conversations they see are what people are talking about on Twitter, and everything is happening at twitter.com or in the Twitter app.
But the millions or hundreds of millions of individual users are seeing a set of sometimes overlapping but ultimately distinct illusions. Each of their Twitters isn’t quite the same as anyone else’s Twitter. So what it feels like “Twitter is talking about” is instead what their small slice of the bigger community is talking about. While we understand at an intellectual level that our experience is defined by the narrow subset of users we decide to follow—and what they decide to repost into our feed—it seems like our experience is representative of the whole of the platform.
This assumption that a small slice of the community is representative of the whole further tricks us into believing that those opinions and arguments accepted by our small community are, instead, widely accepted, if not simply the general consensus. “Everybody knows this,” we think, when in fact, it’s only “known” in our tiny circle.
This unrecognized siloing is made worse by what’s known as “context collapse.” This happens when a multitude of audiences and communities occupy a shared space, as they do on social media platforms, each community having its own context for their conversations, and then something from within the context of one community enters into another.
The simplest example is jargon. My community on Twitter might use a particular term in a quite specific way. If a tweet intended for my community and employing that term gets retweeted into an unintended community that doesn’t share our jargon, the resulting confusion in meaning can lead to misinterpretation, anger, and controversy.
But context collapse isn’t limited to misunderstandings of terminology. It can also apply to in-jokes, commonly accepted arguments, assumptions of shared knowledge of data or premises, and so on. This can then clash with the “everyone knows” illusion social media creates. Here, suddenly, is someone saying something in obvious tension with what “everyone” knows, and so that person must be mistaken, uninformed, irrational, or unethical. If they weren’t, they wouldn’t say or believe that. The imagined consensus and invisible intellectual siloes of social media heightens our already existing biases for credulously believing what our in-group believes, and applying asymmetrical incredulity to arguments and data conflicting with it. We take our circle’s fringe beliefs to be mainstream, and take mainstream beliefs to be fringe.
For someone like Elon Musk—a guy who spends so much time on Twitter that it seemingly represents the bulk of his engagement with people outside his immediate circles—the odd little far-right world of his Twitter feed comes to feel like the whole world. Terminally online, heavy social media users don’t realize how much nonsense they take to be fact because that nonsense, to them, looks like majority opinion, disputed only by a discredited (by their community’s imagined consensus) and unserious minority.
Of course, in-group bias happens outside of social media, and people believed plenty of dumb things before the rise of Twitter. But the illusion I’ve set out makes all of it worse by undermining many of the mechanisms that historically helped us—albeit not always successfully—to correct our nonsense.
The solution isn’t to abandon social media and return to instant messaging and web forums. Technology has changed, and social media has real benefits. Instead, our best path forward is to remind ourselves, again and again, that no matter what it feels like, our online communities are, in fact, quite tiny and unrepresentative—and we should range outside them.