Social Media Science

I’ve only been on mainstream social media for a little over two years now, and I’ve noticed some patterns, some of which are pretty darn cool and some of which are just plain frightening. Social media allows regular individuals, such as myself, to share information with the masses, with the intention of dispensing ideas or even influencing others. This can be an amazingly powerful tool, as we’ve found out with our last presidential election and the well documented interference by a foreign government… who used social media to in an attempt to influence the outcome. Whether or not they were successful, remains to be seen by some, however there’s another angle to social media that in my opinion can be just as, or even more dangerous than fake FaceBook accounts spreading “fake news” about Hillary Clinton. I’m speaking of “social media science” and its impact on our every day lives.

This morning I was thumbing through my news feed and I saw a post regarding vaccinations and how they cause autism. The person who posted this article was wowed and amazed by the facts which revealed the “truth” about autism and the cause behind it. No one wants to find out their child has a developmental impairment, especially when it’s not really certain how it happened. And this is how social media science is effective, it’s completely fear based… fueled by speculation and misinformation, giving people an answer when one is so desperately needed. Despite many scientific studies pointing to the contrary, people choose the answer that is preferred, because it is in fact an answer, and not “we really don’t know.” These “answers”, based loosely on data from the same studies that proved the opposite, are defended with an incredible degree of assertiveness. Sound familiar? It should. Social media science is modeled similarly off another fear based construct… organized religion. They share a very deep rooted commonality… people seeking answers to something that potentially scares the shit out of them.

Just like religion, social media science can look really pretty. It can look like real science by showing graphs and charts, and make the reader feel pretty darn good. It makes them feel safe because if they don’t get their kid vaccinated, they’ll be perfectly fine and grow up to be happy productive adults. Right? This is along the same lines of “If I don’t sin and I go to church, I’ll be in God’s favor and my family won’t be killed off.” Of course, we all know bad things happen to good people, but there are still those comforted in knowing that God must have killed our neighbor’s wife because surely she had some skeletons in her closet. Again, fear based questions answered with fear based conclusions, none of which have any merit… but they’re still an answer which satisfies our ego’s (thank you Sigmund) desperate quest to constantly feel safe and secure.

“And this is how social media science is effective, it’s completely fear based… fueled by speculation and misinformation, giving people an answer when one is so desperately needed. “

Social media science also helps people feel better about frightening global issues… the stuff of blockbuster Hollywood films that brings people in mass to theaters. The same reason people choose to believe that an evil government plot is affecting their children, is what makes them want to believe there’s really no such thing as global warming or climate change. It scares the crap out of them to know we’re on the verge of self destruction… take the concept away and wallah! No more nightmares. People can’t wrap their head around the idea that if the right ice shelf collapses, sea levels would instantaneously rise six feet or more and millions of people around the planet would die. They really don’t want to know about the Twaites Glacier and the fact there’s a huge crack in it… which is growing. So let’s spread the notion that the science is all wrong, and there’s nothing to fear, maybe even throw in some “God wouldn’t let that happen, he promised with a rainbow.” to really ping our religious core.

The CDC is counting on some pretty basic graphics to show the importance of vaccinations. Perhaps they need to use some “social media science” production values instead.

Now some people might read this and think “Mike is talking about pseudo science and that’s already a thing… Mike it’s called pseudo science you dumb ass.” I would respond by saying that the name, pseudo science, is actually part of the problem. You can’t identify something that’s hurting you if you don’t give it a name that accurately describes it. Pseudo science is much too generalized a term, and can be used anywhere with anything. Social media science is adapted perfectly for cyberspace, where information can be rapidly shared and spread “virally.” You can teach pseudo science in a classroom or textbook, but social media science looks great and it sounds even better thanks to snazzy video and audio production tools. It provides enough answers, albeit with no basis in reality, to calm and soothe the scared parent, the elderly smiling at their grand children and to the kid that can’t sleep at night. Unfortunately with deadly consequences… for all of us.

The Centers for Disease Control website notes that in 1964-65, more than 12 million Americans were infected with the German measles (rubella), which killed 2,000 babies. Another figure shows that more than 15,000 people were killed by diphtheria in 1921. Of course there’s polio, cervical cancer and a host of other illnesses which can be prevented by vaccines, and which could potentially kill thousands or even millions each year. You would think that the “fear” of these diseases alone would want people to be vaccinated against them, with so much evidence of their effectiveness. The CDC states that only 15 cases of German Measles have been reported since 2012…. a dramatic reduction and one would think, proof enough to convince people that such precautions work. However my guess is that the lack of the disease in the general population, in combination with social media science, redirects the fear to something much more simple and easier to digest… a conspiracy. Because once again, no one wants to believe these things happen. People choose to believe something completely false, rather than the cure itself. Fucking amazing. But hey, the article they saw on FaceBook was written incredibly well, had an awesome sound track, got 4,000 likes, and only took them three minutes to read… and to make a decision which could potentially kill their kid. Thank you social media science.