A Stanford psychologist says internet culture isn’t as toxic as it feels

Reconsidering this garbage heap.
Reconsidering this garbage heap.
Image: Reuters/Dinuka Liyanawatte
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The internet feels like a worse place lately. In March, the Pew Research Center cited hate memes, manipulative bots spewing fake news, and media reports declaring the end of internet innocence as evidence that the social web isn’t “a space where disparate views, ideas and conversations [can] constructively converge.”

Meanwhile, the risks of going online are widely discussed: It can cause depression, or create a “toxic mirror.”  It can even make us question our deepest principles, like when Cloudflare CEO Matthew Prince—calling his his own decision “dangerous”— told his staff in a memo on Aug. 16 that he felt compelled to break with the company’s free-speech, “content-neutral” policy to cease site services to the neo-Nazi publication The Daily Stormer.

Initial excitement over the global village and its possibilities has turned into widespread dismay about the turn civilization’s taking.

Blaming the internet for society’s ills may feel like a reasonable leap. It’s typical of humans to worry that new tools will ruin the world they know, according to sociologist Frank Furedi. He notes in a 2014 essay for Aspen Review that Plato worried reading and writing would destroy memory, just as we now worry that the internet will destroy children’s ability to learn.

Michal Kosinski, a social psychologist and data scientist at Stanford University focusing on computational psychology, remains optimistic, however. The internet only reflects who we already are, he says.

Kosinski’s pioneering  approach to digital psychometrics—assessing personality algorithmically using online data—gives him a unique insight into our online lives. His programs analyze data for what it says about us, like assessing Twitter users’ music preferences for personality clues.

Kosinski is surprisingly optimistic for someone whose spent his career looking at social media from a psychological perspective. The data scientist coordinates the myPersonality project, an international  research endeavor to create psycho-demographic profiles of millions of Facebook users. He is perhaps most well-known for his creation, a predictive engine for free online personality analysis.

In 2012, Kosinski showed that private traits and attributes are predictable based on responses to social media posts—they reveal who we are. With about 70 Facebook “likes,” his program could quite accurately predict sexual orientation, political affiliation, religious belief, tendencies to indulge in alcohol, cigarettes and drugs, and more.

“Computer analysis of personality is much more sophisticated than human analysis because it’s taking tens of thousands of statistical data points and noting dependencies that are invisible to humans,” he says. That understanding can, of course, be used to manipulate. His algorithmic predictions have proven influential in targeted marketing, and his work reportedly inspired similar technology used in private campaigns designed to push voters to choose Brexit and elect Donald Trump.

Kosinski didn’t endorse that use of his work, but it did give him cause to consider the dangers of Big Data. Still, he says he doesn’t fear a hyperreal post-privacy future because he believes the internet is making life better, not worse.

The long view

“We’re more equal than ever before,” Kosinski says.”There’s a connection between elites and non-elites that was impossible before global society’s migration online.” 

Our first human societies were small villages, where people had intimate relationships and strict social codes. Over time, villages grew into cities with more-distant connections and communications, and leaders became estranged from their communities as a result.

Now, he says, the internet functions as a very big village—but unlike our initial tiny enclaves, we now have access to global culture and communities.

Plus, the internet has democratized information, education, and business, given voice to the silenced, helped to erode outdated taboos, and advanced human rights. And today someone socially isolated in their physical village can find acceptance among like-minded people online.

“The new global village is great—it comes with benefits of the old village, like community, but also disrupts old, small community hang-ups about acceptable behavior,” he says.

Of course, troll-like behavior wasn’t a norm among neighbors in small villages, and being anonymous was presumably a challenging task within a tiny population.

Undeniably there are “downsides” to online culture, Kosinski says, but he says we’re co-creating social codes for appropriate behavior in real time, as this new society evolves.

Despite the oft-discussed social media bubble, divides between left and right, conservatives and progressives, aren’t as wide as they may feel, Kosinski says.

“We’re no longer asking whether all people have human rights, or if schools should be racially integrated,” he says. The social divides in the US were much more pronounced not so long ago. “We’ve already agreed on many major points. Now it’s finer matters that people argue about, like whether health insurance should be nationalized.”

The parts of the internet that are toxic are not as new as the technology itself. Neo-Nazis, for instance, take cues from racists of the past. According to sociologist Furedi, the internet and social media are powerful instruments for mobilization but they respond to “needs that pre-exist or at least exist independently of it.”

What is new is the amount of information we face, and thus the speed and tenor of cultural conversation. Today, when racists march in the US,  their photos get tweeted, leading to widespread social shaming, and rapid consequences.

As we migrate from a purely physical life to existence in a virtual village, internet culture continues to show us our potential. Like us, it is a work in progress.