The Facebook Fallacy

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The Facebook Fallacy Header

There as distinct problem with Facebook; the ability to accept and reject friend requests.

The source of this problem lies in the reasons for our acceptance or rejection.  Our emotions are intricately linked to our ability to reason, meaning that we often make decisions to accept or reject friends based on an emotional reaction.  This is true in real life – in simple terms; If we make each other feel sad we’re probably not going to want to hang out, and if we make each other happy then we’ll probably spend more time together.  From my experience, this is regardless of the external benefits that may be gained from the maintenance of a particular friendship.  Let’s play out a scenario:

Two people meet, one of which owns a large business that appeals to the other.  However, they both have opposing ideas on almost everything.  They don’t enjoy the conversation, and develop little to nothing in common.

Despite the fact that the maintenance of the friendship may lead to job opportunities for one of the party, it isn’t likely that this friendship will be maintained.  The opposing ideology of these imaginary people could generate imaginary arguements or imaginary internal frustrations; imaginary negative emotional experiences.  They might remain imaginary Facebook friends, but the imaginary information they each will post, the things that they each ‘like’ or ‘share’, will often be of opposing views, instigating more imaginary negative emotions.  A good real life example is racism.

In my late high school years, I was enrolled in work experience at a hospital’s A&E department.  I saw a lot of interesting things during that two week stint, but one has always stood out more than the rest; a boy, around my age at the time, presented with large lacerations in his arm from a dog bite.  The doctor treating him was an emergency medicine consultant, a specialist in skin graft surgery, and a first generation Indian immigrant.  The boy, despite the layers of fat sticking out the reverse of his arm, adamantly refused the treatment from this man due to the place of his birth, the accent on his tongue, and the colour of his skin.  It’s clear to me now that the actions of the boy reflect the negative emotion he experienced when faced with a challenge to his beliefs; he was about to be helped by someone he despised.  That negative emotion ensuing from the challenge to his held beliefs outweighed the rationality of having his tricep put back inside his arm.

A negative emotional response is an intrinsic reaction when we are presented with views that are opposed to our own.  It makes sense from an evolutionary perspective.  This interesting article investigating the science of why we don’t believe science discusses how the flight or fight response applies to data as well as predators.  This is evident in the backfire effect – a cognitive bias that makes people with really strong opinions believe their views with even more strength in the face of contradicting evidence.  As portrayed by the boy with the dog bite, there is nothing rational about this thought process; it seems to be entirely emotional.  This plays a fundamental role in what I have called the Facebook Fallacy.

The negative emotional response often leads to the irrational blocking or deleting of friends and – more importantly – their opinions.  This can lead to a ‘false’ band wagon effect.  The band wagon effect is the cognitive bias whereby we generate an opinion based on the idea that everyone else thinks in the same way.  You can induce that a ‘false’ bandwagon effect is therefore an occasion where we generate an opinion based on what we think everyone else thinks, without that opinion being the consensus idea.  It may be that our selected group of Facebook friends don’t agree with Anthropogenic Climate Change.  We then developed these views under the impression that this is the norm, which is untrue.

This Facebook fallacy is similar, and definitely related to confirmation bias.  This is the cognitive bias that leads us to search for and accept information that fits with what we already believe.  Confirmation bias relates to the Facebook fallacy, but differs in that we are not searching for specific complementary information, we are instead choosing to exclude contradictory information.

It may be a good time to mention that cognitive biasses are not the same as logical fallacies; but they are related.  Cognitive biasses are the ways in which our current thoughts, feelings and experiences cause us to act in a certain way.  Logical fallacies are arguements based on logical errors, and are often (though not always) associated with a cognitive bias.  Here’s an example:

Someone who has been brought up in a Christian environment is likely to believe in the tenets of Christianity.  The cognitive bias of this belief can often induce a fallacy called the Gap Fallacy – whereby gaps in current knowledge are assumed to be proof of a creator, despite the endless other options that may fill that void.

Gap Fallacy Image

Is this all important?  In short, yes.  A recent PEW study showed that 47% of us are getting some sort of news from our Facebook feed.  We’re presented with so much media that enhances the cognitive biasses – and subsequent fallacies – mentioned in this post without us even needing to think (or not think) about it.  It’s all related to that negative side of the internet – the propagation and continuation of illogical, horrible and atavistic views; homophobia, racism, sexism, discrimination against disabled people.  It’s the new form of in-group behaviour; existing in a specific group and exhibiting in-group trends online whilst being part of no real life in-group in an ever expanding multi-cultural, progressively accepting society.  It allows people to express views and be accepted for them in an online setting, in a way which would never happen in real life modern society.  Imagine a group sitting round and shouting about their racist and homophobic views in a public setting, with no challenge.  Videos of bystander intervention in racist scenarios like this, and Channel 4’s Eye Spy series do show that a minority of us intervene.  Despite the minority, people still intervene; even if only 1 in 100 people present an alternative view, that alternative view is still being presented.  In the online world, we can simply delete and block these opposing ideas – there is no intervention if we don’t allow it.

What’s more important is what we can do about it.  Maintain a huge Facebook ‘friend’ group.  Yes, it may be annoying to see things posted that you don’t agree with, but that’s just your emotional response to a negative stimulus taking over the prevailing rationality of preventing the Facebook fallacy.  Don’t delete people who’s views oppose your own.  Above all, don’t hesitate to engage opposing views.  That’s an idea I strongly live by.  I really think that even a small exposure to an alternative view point can have a hugely positive effect.  As I’ve mentioned in one of my previous posts, an important consideration is the way in which you engage, especially with issues that lend themselves to the previously mentioned backfire effect.  The Debunking Handbook is an essential tool here, and a book that I should probably read again (again).

2 Responses

  1. strong piece. very related to empathy. understanding others across gender, species, cultural, political, philosophical, religious, etc. boundaries is a nice antidote to ignorance.

    • lukepenketh@gmail.com

      Thank you Mark, means a lot coming from your level of understanding in this area.

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