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How Ideas Become Contagious Online

Hivemind author Sarah Rose Cavanagh argues that humans swarm in sync and change course en masse

Credit: Courtesy of Sarah Rose Cavanagh

SSarah Rose Cavanagh doesn’t see the impact of social media as all good or all bad — instead, the psychologist calls herself a “techno-pragmatist.” In her new book Hivemind: The New Science of Tribalism in Our Divided World, Cavanagh looks at the way humans behave as a “hive” — specifically, how we influence each other to reach common goals. She draws from psychology, philosophy, and neuroscience, all in an effort to understand how our hive operates in real and virtual worlds.

Cavanagh argues that, like bees, humans swarm in sync and change course en masse. She points to the legalization of marijuana, or support for gay marriage, as examples of those tipping points. Public support was “slowly building, but then seemed to, all of a sudden, flip,” she tells OneZero. “It’s about having enough of the hive take a stance.” In Hivemind, Cavanagh explores how public sentiment shifts, and eventually transforms into action.

Cavanagh currently works as an emotion regulation researcher at Assumption College in central Massachusetts, where she explores how managing emotions in the classroom affects student performance. OneZero caught up with her to discuss the internet’s role in intensifying in-groups, how to challenge thinking in the tribe, and the way our social worlds influence our view of reality, among other subjects.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

OneZero: How do humans operate within the hive? How much autonomy do we actually have?

Sarah Rose Cavanagh: The extent to which we are both an individual and a collective species is fascinating — you can see it most easily in strong groups like cults, or sports teams, where people bond and share emotions and goals. Not only do we share our emotions, but on a basic level of mannerisms, facial expressions, and gait, we line up — especially when we have experiences where the emphasis is less on the individual. So dancing together, chanting together at sports events — you feel collective fury. It’s something psychologists call “collective effervescence.”

This is true at a biological level. But our ways of thinking about the world, our opinions, are also contagious and socially formed. Fashion trends, whether hemlines are up or down, jeans are tight or baggy — these seem to happen and spread from one person to another, and we all collectively start doing whatever is in fashion.

How does the internet impact our collective experience in the hive?

Social media and social technology and the internet in general have not really introduced something brand new to our experience, but rather act as an amplifier of our existing nature — both in good and bad ways.

The internet has allowed us to reach beyond, to form in-groups. Before we had these technologies, you would form these tribes with people who are in your everyday life. Whereas now, the reach is global.

Emotional contagion, this contagion of thoughts and ideas, can also spread farther and faster, because not only is the reach farther but also we’re sharing a lot more. We’re sharing pictures and thoughts, opinions, and articles. The reach and the amplification is much larger.

People are forming more extreme opinions and in-groups. They’re only sharing within certain groups [who are] already sharing their opinion. There’s an old psychological effect called group polarization. If you walk into a room with an opinion and everyone shares your opinion, you not only become more entrenched in that opinion, but you tend to move more to the outskirts. You hear everyone agreeing with you — you don’t hear dissenting opinions — and your own opinion becomes not only stronger but more extreme. That is something that a lot of people have been issuing warning calls about.

The internet acts as an amplifier of our existing nature — both in good and bad ways.

The hive isn’t just how we behave in the world; it’s how we interpret the world. What does this mean, especially in such a fractured media environment?

We take for granted the idea that all of our opinions and our understanding of the world, how the world works, is individually formed — but if you take a closer look, most of what we know about the world is given to us socially through education, through books, through television.

Traditionally, we had fewer news sources, fewer sources of entertainment, and we had more of a consensus as to the facts that we were taking in. People always had differing opinions on what should happen about those facts, but we agreed that it was reality. With group polarization and people seeking new sources that confirm their existing views and behaviors like that online, increasingly we disagree about what did happen. And that is rather dangerous.

If you want to challenge the beliefs of your hive, is this difficult? How can you do it?

There is what’s called a “spiral of silence” — when no one’s willing to speak up, everyone assumes that everyone is in agreement. That can work in prosocial ways, if what we’re talking about are racist beliefs — if no one says it, everyone assumes that no one should say it, and the idea will die out over time. But it can be antisocial if the group is coalescing and becoming more extreme and no one offers a contrasting viewpoint. Sam Somers is a social psychologist and wrote a book called Situations Matter about conformity in social situations. He talks about the importance of speaking up. The bystander effect, for example, means that everyone assumes someone else will speak up in an emergency. If you’re in that situation and there’s an emergency and someone needs help, or you’re in an extreme group and realize that something antisocial is happening, being aware of the conformist, bystander effect, these psychological concepts, could give you the courage to act.

Our society seems to have moved away from physical gatherings, spending more time online. Even workplaces have disappeared as freelancing and digital work has become more common. What are the implications?

We don’t quite know yet. There’s good evidence that people who are isolated — say, the elderly, people struggling with chronic illness, depression, or who struggle with social interactions in general — actually are benefited by social media, because it lowers the cost of admission to social interactions. They can find communities online to support them if face-to-face [interaction] is difficult because of physical or other restrictions.

On the other hand, data shows that one of the risks of replacing face-to-face with social media is that people engage in “social snacking” — we’re all so busy with work and families and responsibilities that one of the dangers is that when you see your friends on social media, you know they just got a new job, you know that their child just turned five. Liking those statuses or commenting on them fills enough of the social need that it takes the edge off, but it isn’t nutritious.

Some researchers, like Jean Twenge, point to negative social consequences of internet engagement for teens — like depression, anxiety, less sex. Do teens have a hive online, or are they feeling more alone?

With both teenagers and adults, we need to start asking questions both from a research standpoint and from a societal standpoint that are a little more fine-grained, because teens are doing very different things with their screen time. What they’re going to be doing is going to be differentially linked with higher or lower well-being. There’s such variability. One colleague, his son doesn’t have any social media, doesn’t do Instagram, Facebook, but he does video games. Whereas other teens are spending most of their lives on social media. Whereas other teens, my pre-teen, couldn’t care less about social media, but she loves Netflix. All of those are very different behaviors that are probably going to be differentially impacted in terms of mental health. It’s really critical to ask what’s the context, what other social support do they have? A teen who does not have many face-to-face friends or extracurricular activities and who spends a lot of time on social media is probably going to look very different from a teen who has lots of friends and lots of extracurricular activities and is also spending a lot of time on social media.

We need to start parsing these things. When you look at the data, it’s really noisy. That’s because we’re not asking these finer-grained questions. There have also been big changes in parenting practices — “safetyism,” over-protective “helicopter” or “bulldozer parenting.” Teens are driving later, having sex later, drinking less — and a lot of these things are good things for teen mental health. But part of that is because we increasingly protect them and demand that they do a million activities and shelter them. And part of the drive to social media is that they’re looking for that social contact they used to get by hanging out in the local park or at dances. I think it’s driving them online.

Writer (currently) in Budapest, bylines @TheAtlantic, @Undarkmag, @VICE, @voxdotcom & more; follow on Twitter @hope_reese; hopereese.com

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