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by Steven Novella, Apr 15 2013

Social media has been getting a bad rap recently. Blogs, podcasts, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, and other social media outlets have certainly had a dramatic impact on how people communicate. They are powerful tools and many people have put them to good use.

There are some unintended consequences as well, and as a society we are still learning to adapt to this new factor in our lives. There are issues of privacy, the rules of social behavior, and the ethics of spreading dubious information online.

We discussed two related issues recently on the SGU. The first was about the recent paper, “Recursive fury: Conspiracist ideation in the blogosphere in response to research on conspiracist ideation,” by Lewandowsky. Essentially Lewandowsky wrote a paper about conspiracy theories around the denial of global warming. Part of the backlash against that paper by self-described global warming skeptics included further conspiracy theories about the paper. Lewandowsky could not resist the irony, hence his subsequent paper.

The controversy stems from the fact that Lewandowsky, in the follow up paper, named specific bloggers and speculated about their mental states in a psychology journal. The questions that arise from this are many: what rights to privacy does one surrender when they publish something online? Is it ethical to name specific people in a psychological journal, and if not, how does one give source references without naming their targets?

These are important issues with many ramifications once you start to think it through. Public figures are fair game for criticism and even ridicule. It’s the price you pay for being famous or engaging in public discourse. The law recognizes that private citizens are not fair game and deserve some level of protection.

Has social media, however, made everyone a public figure? At what point does posting online under your real name forfeit the expectation of privacy? Does this justify online posters using a pseudonym? What are the ethics of someone anonymously (under a pseudonym) using social media to attack the reputation of someone else who posts online under their real name?

The issue of privacy is made more important by the fact that social media tends to be a harsh and unforgiving environment. Social media has increased interaction without the usual social cues that tend to moderate our behavior.

In short, people feel free to be complete asses on the internet, especially when they are doing so anonymously.

This is certainly a boon to psychologists – you have millions of people interacting with diminished inhibitions. This is a flood of data about the human psyche, culture, belief systems, social interactions, and the spread of information. Suddenly we are all part of a vast pseudovoluntary psychological experiment.

The second item we discussed on the SGU was a recent study of pro and anti-vaccine messages on Twitter. The study found three things – negative but not positive vaccine messages on twitter were contagious, negative tweets spread faster that positive tweets, and (most disturbingly) high volumes of both negative and positive tweets provoked an increase in negative tweets.

Anti-vaccine information therefore has a profound advantage over pro-vaccine information on Twitter. This effect likely generalizes to other issues and other forms of social media. For whatever reason, we are more motivated to pass on negative information than positive information. This represents a massive and probably harmful bias in the way information spreads through social media.

In short, people are negative assholes on the internet.

Not surprisingly there are negative effects of this online culture. A thorough review of existing research is beyond the scope of this post, but let me summarize the preliminary findings that such research is starting to show: Engaging in social media can potentially harm self esteem, it can increase stress, and it can lead to social isolation with decreased physical contact with other people.  There is a correlation with negative health outcomes among teenagers. Who knows how much lost work productivity has been caused by spending time on social media. And of course, social media allows for the viral spread of rumors, scaremongering, and misinformation.

It’s not all bad, of course. Social media are a powerful tool, and its popularity speaks to this power. It is an effective way to engage in mass communication, and has largely democratized access to publishing. Social media are also a potentially powerful source of information, for example by tracking the spread of infectious diseases.

It is still an immature technology, however. As a culture we need to learn how to maximize its benefits while mitigating the negative aspects of social media. Social media has had, in my opinion, a profoundly positive and negative effect on the skeptical community, for example.

I feel we can definitely benefit from further research into the uses and effects of social media, in addition to experimentation with methods to mitigate its negative effects. Existing studies, for example, are mostly correlational, and it is therefore difficult to make firm cause and effect conclusions. Further research can help sort this out.

The question is – what will advance more quickly, our ability to handle this advancing technology, or the technology itself?

18 Responses to “Twitterpated”

  1. Max says:

    You also said that you suspect that all positive product reviews are fake, and that people only post negative reviews.
    First, negative reviews can be fake too, posted by competitors.
    Second, some products and services have better reviews than their competitors, so there must be a reason for that.
    Third, why isn’t there as much negativity regarding homeopathy or acupuncture as there is regarding vaccines?

    • Jim says:

      “why isn’t there as much negativity regarding homeopathy or acupuncture as there is regarding vaccines?”

      The anti-vaccine conspiracy linked vaccines to autism, which made it an emotional issue. Homeopathy and acupuncture lack any emotional motivation for causing a strong ‘anti’ movement against them.

    • Max says:

      Case in point
      Oscillococcinum – 4 stars: 43 5-star reviews, 12 1-star reviews.

      All the 1-star reviews say that it’s a sugar pill, but I don’t see any reviewers saying they got the flu after taking it, which should happen more often than after getting a flu shot.

      • Jim says:

        “All the 1-star reviews say that it’s a sugar pill, but I don’t see any reviewers saying they got the flu after taking it, which should happen more often than after getting a flu shot.”

        The reason people are not stating they got the flu after they took the pill is because the pill is supposed to be taken at the first sign of the flu, not as a preventative measure like a flu shot. The product description makes this point very clear:
        “Take Oscillo at the First Sign of Flu! … Clinical trials have shown that when taken at the first sign of flu, 63 percent of Oscillo users showed clear improvement within 48 hours…”

        Of course, most people will show clear improvement after 48 hours of the onset of flu symptoms without taking any medicine, but that is beside the point.

        Furthermore, there is a one star reviewer who did say it made them more sick after taking:
        “I took it as directed, and was scared to find that within an hour my flu had become a lot worse. I tried taking more, and two hours after that my flu had gotten even worse! I should have listened to my body, but attempted a third dose. At this point, the projectile vomiting started. I passed out at some point after that, and had to be taken to a hospital.”

        But, just like the people who claim to have felt better after taking the pill, this user is confusing causation with correlation.

        The only way homeopathy works is if you abandon the mechanisms of the known world and replace them with Magick.

      • Max says:

        For a sugar pill taken “at the first sign of flu” I’d expect more cases of people coming down with flu or cold right after taking the pill.

        Some people do use it for prevention, like the 5-star review under a real name that said, “We even gave our son preventive dosages and it works also!”

        Airborne has even better reviews: 53 5-star and only four 1-star reviews.

      • Jim says:

        “For a sugar pill taken “at the first sign of flu” I’d expect more cases of people coming down with flu or cold right after taking the pill.”

        I’m not able to follow your logic. If they are using as directed then they already have the flu when they begin taking it. Are you suggesting that the pill should actually give them the flu?

        As for taking it for preventative measures, most people do *not* have the flu for much longer periods of time than they do have it. I can hypothesize that drinking a cup of coffee every morning will prevent me from catching the flu. Every morning through 2012 I drank a cup of coffee. I did not catch the flu in 2012. Does this mean that my coffee drinking actually prevented the flu? Probably not as I am most likely confusing correlation with causation.

        People taking these products are predisposed to believing their claims of efficacy; therefore, we can anticipate that confirmation bias and placebo affect will color their results and their product ratings.

  2. Max says:

    If you post under your real name, you can’t expect privacy. That’s why I don’t post under my full name.

    • Daniel says:

      And even if you don’t, you shouldn’t expect privacy. You have to assume that anything you put in writing will be put in the public domain if someone wants it.

    • Bill says:

      And with hacktivist groups like Anonymous, you can’t really expect privacy when posting under a psudeonym either. No matter how effectively you may anonymize yourself, a sufficiently-motivated person can identify you.

      • Max says:

        Kinda hypocritical for Anonymous to identify anonymous people.

      • Daniel says:

        Anonymous should be the least of your concerns. Somehow see yourself get caught up in a civil lawsuit, either if you’re a party or someone that has information, and an attorney can serve you subpoena, without prior permission from a court, and can ask for any email that’s remotely relevant to the suit, and all of your Facebook and twitter postings. You don’t even need to know it’s happening. I can serve a subpoena on any of those companies and get what I’m looking for.

        If you look at your gmail on a company computer, your employer can look at all of your emails.

        If you work for a financial services firm of any sort that ends up under investigation by the SEC, DOJ or any state attorney general, which virtually all of them do at some point, be prepared to have not only the attorneys that your company has retained go through your emails, but also at least 5 government attorneys, even if you are only tangentially related to whatever is being investigated,

        Privacy doesn’t really exist anymore, and it has very little to do with the secret agents or businessmen in smoke filled board rooms.

      • Max says:

        Oh yeah, everything on company computers is monitored, that’s a given, though looking at your gmail or bank accounts borders on identity theft.

        Video Professor tried to sue 100 anonymous critics in 2007.

        “As part of their action, Video Professor requested and received the IP addresses of registered Wikipedia users… who posted what Video Professor claimed was defamatory information about their business. Video Professor sent Internet provider Comcast a subpoena for the user identity of the IP addresses; however, Comcast refused, stating they only relinquish that information under court order, not subpoena. In late December 2007, Video Professor Inc. withdrew its lawsuit against John Does 1 through 100 in the U.S. District Court for the District of Colorado.”

      • Daniel says:


        Virtually all sophisticated employers will have you sign a form that says anything you do on a company computer is company business. So if you use a company computer to look at your gmail, you have at least given signed consent for your employer to access it as well. Some jurisdictions will go as far to hold that a employee that communicates with an attorney through his gmail on a company computer waives attorney/client privilege. Looking at bank accounts is a different matter, but the fact remains that an employer or co-worker had the motivation to do so, they will regardless of legality. In the end, your privacy is still compromised.

  3. Kat says:

    Privacy on the web is illusory at best. I’ve read countless articles on how to mask your IP address, strip identifying code from photos & posts, etc, but if you truly want anonymity it takes lots more tech than most people care to invest in or utilize.

    There are several blawgs dealing with issues of web content including negative reviews and free speech. is one of my favorites.

  4. Michael says:

    “Social media has had, in my opinion, a profoundly positive and negative effect on the skeptical community”

    I can’t help but be a bit pessimistic when I hear things like this bit about anti-vax Twitter posts. I tend to think that social media has done more harm than good for general skepticism.

    “what will advance more quickly, our ability to handle this advancing technology, or the technology itself?”

    This seems obvious to me- the technology outpaces our adaptation to it. Your question whether social media has made everybody a public figure is a good example.

  5. Phea says:

    I abandoned my FB account on principle. There is absolutely no privacy on FB. They use any and all of the information you provide to make a buck. It would be like the Post Office providing “free” mail delivery, opening and reading all your correspondence, and based on what they read, putting ads in your mail. That, in essence, is exactly what FB is doing. I did set up an account for my dog, and check on what my kids are up to now and then. The privacy issue doesn’t seem to bother them.

  6. David Hewitt says:

    “Social media *have* been getting…”

  7. Luara says:

    Someone (an abuser from my past) set up a website with a lot of private info on me, under my full name (first, middle, last).
    I don’t have the time to try to force them to remove it, I asked a lawyer, who thought it might be difficult.
    So I just hope nobody does the online search.
    The internet is changing our society in many ways, and laws haven’t caught up with it.