Wednesday, October 23, 2013

The McFly Effect: Why Everything on Facebook Is Probably a Lie

A Facebook friend posted this image this morning.

Those of you in particular social media circles will feel a twinge of familiarity, as you probably saw something remarkably similar in the middle of last year, when the exact same image appeared, also doctored to the then current date. I, myself, am something of a BTTF aficionado, having watched the trilogy far too many times as a teen, and so when I saw the 2012 version, something struck me as a slightly off. I did a quick search on Snopes and found that I was right—the date had been altered.

Changing a seven-segment display is, like, Photoshop 101. No, it's Photoshop 97, the remedial class for people who totally missed the "how to turn on your computer" class in high school. There's no real reason to trust this image. But that's not how your brain works. Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman's book Thinking, Fast and Slow identifies two parts of a mind: System 1, the instant-reaction, automatic computation part, and System 2, the slow-thinking solver of complex problems. The brain, he says, is a "machine for jumping to conclusions", where System 1 does most of the work, and enlists System 2 only when the going gets relatively rough. And System 1's default is to trust what it sees.

Unless System 2 is active, System 1 will take whatever it's given and run off. And our control over our own vigilance is spotty. Acts like self-control and vigilance require energy, and this energy can be spent over time, in a phenomenon known as "ego depletion". When mental energy is low, we're even more eager to believe everything we see and hear than usual. Facebook is a great ego sink, as people often use it to relax, procrastinate, or otherwise fill downtime. Facebook also offers people a litany of choices, and decision-making further depletes mental energy. So, you arrive at a place where most users have a means of sharing information, and show up at a time when they're most likely to believe it at face value. The perfect storm.

Because of the strange topography of social media content propagation, these ideas will bounce around the tubes like used swim diapers in a wave pool. And, the rule of 10,000 ensures there will always be someone there to pass it on.

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