Friday, November 20, 2020

The (Anti) Social Media?

Crazy people don’t know they are crazy. I know I am crazy therefore I am not crazy. Isn’t that crazy – Captain Jack Sparrow

Last week brought good news on the breakthrough on the Covid vaccine and the concern that a part of the western world may choose not to get vaccinated. Turns out that there is a segment of the population that believes that all kinds of vaccination is bad and have even chosen not to get their kids vaccinated, with bad outcomes. There is an audience for all kinds of conspiracy theories out there. The world is flat. Corporates are run by pedophiles. Climate change is a hoax. Moon landing never happened. Society always had people who were at the extremes but now every view gets expressed and finds an audience in this strange yet wonderful place called the social media.

Depending on your views and preferences, your media feeds will show you more and more links of what you have previously liked. Let’s say I am a Trump supporter and I like pages that glorify him. I will start seeing more and more pages that say good things about Trump. So when I come across people who don’t share the same views on Trump, I can’t believe how can they be so stupid. Turns out the other camp, because they believe otherwise, only see links that reinforces their belief of how bad Trump is, thanks to the same algorithms. That is how algorithms work and that is why they are so dangerous. The supporters of Trump feel he is god like. Those who don’t like him see the devil in him. Both these camps can’t believe that the other side is no naïve and end up thinking that they have an ulterior motive. The middle ground gets lost and people move towards extremes. Thank (blame?) the social media.

This trend is also getting accelerated due to multiple factors. Most of us find it very difficult to listen to an opposite view, hence avoid it. Social media allows one to find like minded people across the world to create large communities. Large communities lead to feedback loops and mob psychology if the belief is that you are in danger or under attack (think hyper nationalism, anti immigration). Social media leads to amplification of these fringe views leading to concern in the majority about the proliferation of the fringes. Sensationalism by Media also does not help – many times the headlines are totally different from the spirit of the article – radical headlines make for more clicks and viral stories.

Thankfully democracies have woken up to the manipulation of voters and the power that these platforms exert over their users. Social media allows each individual to view the world through their own lens. This leads to distortion as everyone is viewing the same thing differently and amplifies our own thoughts. The system of auto feeds reinforces our biases. If we let someone else make the choices for us, when the someone else is a programme, the end result can be dangerous. While I am totally for auto recommendations of which series or movies we should watch next (although recommendation of friends are better) auto feeds on social media is something that we need to be wary of. These programmes also get coloured by the biases of their creators. Some biases we are aware of, most biases we are not.

Thanks to the lock down we have moved to online consumption of daily news. One way to break this echo chamber could be to read whatever you find interesting across varies subjects instead of letting the news agency show you news according to your “preferences”. Other way could be to follow/interact with people who have a different view and being tolerant of those views. I am sure we will find a way to deal with this. Being aware of a problem is the first step in solving it.

Friday, November 6, 2020

Ask The Expert?

The trouble with the world is that the stupid are cocksure and the intelligent full of doubt – Bertrand Russell

The last month was full of noise around the US elections. The expectation was a clean Biden win. The final result seems much closer. This was not the only major event that has not gone as per expectations. Some more to consider –

Trump got elected

Brexit happened

Covid predictions and their flip flops

World oil demand was supposed to outstrip oil supply in 2000’s

War ravaged Japan and Germany were not supposed to come back from ruins so soon

World was also supposed to run out of food in 1960’s

The most widely held and tracked large stocks see wild swings on result days

You see the world of making predictions is full of pitfalls. Experts are supposed to know. We depend on their knowledge and feedback. Maths and Physics are comparatively straightforward – the equations produce the same results every time. However in most other fields the outcome is based on everything else being the same. The problem is that everything else is never the same. It may be similar but not the same and there is a big difference between the two. That why history rhymes and does not repeat.

Very often the outcomes are a range of probabilities. Probabilities are never 0 or 100 and the range between those numbers is wide enough to have a huge impact on the end result. Behavioral science is not an exact science. Behaviours change. Sentiments change. Breakthroughs happen to solve impossible looking problems.

The noise around events will only increase with each passing day so how can one be better prepared? Part of the solution is having an open mind and a flexible approach, helps in re-calibrating our views when required. Part is acknowledging that one will never fully know. Part is assigning realistic probabilities. With experience one starts planning for a range of outcomes so that even the worst case is not unexpected or ruinous.

In reality, no one knows, for sure. Keeps things interesting 😊