20 Nov 21

Breaking the social media prism

Breaking the social media prism

Chris makes important claims about polarization in social media and points to important solution spaces (some of which we're actively exploring at Birdwatch).

  • Social media helps us express our identity and get a sense of other people's. It's a basic human need for social acceptance and relatedness that has been put on overdrive.
    • This feedback cycle is what makes social media addictive, not shiny content.
    • Unfortuantely though, the current platforms give us a much distorted view of others, hence the name Prism. We think we're looking at a mirror, but we're looking at a Prism.
    • It prizes extremists, and mutes moderates
    • It also gives us a wrong idea of how polarized things actually are (they are less than we feel online.)
    • It also makes it easier to compare ourselves to people who are much more privileged or lucky than if we were offline, just comparing ourselves to people nearby.
  • The current conversation about this topic is dominated by Tech elites, such as the people behind The social dilemma.
    • The discussion is wrongly focused on algorithms puppeteering human attention, as if we were this dumb or manipulable.
    • The real problem lies in that we're using social media to curate and express our identities, rather than to try to understand reality or seek information. We create an identity, express it, listen to social feedback, and adjust. But this feedback is "refracted", or "distorted".
  • Echo chambers, or only looking at content that you agree with, do not explain social media polarization.
  • Stepping outside of your echo chamber may reinforce your current views
    • You'll likely encounter extremist views from the other side that reinforce what you already believe in, rather than moderate views that you can aknowledge.
    • You'll likely read opposing views as attacks on your identity, rather than trying to understand the ideas being shared.
    • You'll also likely learn how to defend your side better and more aggresively from such extremist arguments.
  • Social media has put a human need in overdrive: the need to create and present an identity.
  • Social media is less like an eighteen century salon, where ideas are discussed, and more like a football field, where our decisions are biased by the colors of our uniforms.
  • Our instinct for identity trumps our rational thinking
  • False polarization: people overestimate how extreme people on a different group are.
  • Extremists post far more than moderates.
    • Moderates have more to loose in the offline world. They can be attacked by people on both sides, even extremists in their own party.


  1. We can learn to see the prism and how it distorts our views
  2. We can learn to see ourselves through the prism (understand how other people see us, and how that's different from who we truly are)
  3. Break the prism and learn effective strategies to engage with the other side.
    1. Expose people to opposing views but within their "lattitude of acceptance", not extremes.
    2. Learn how to present an argument by using the values of the other side. Eg. Gay people are looking for freedom and America is the land of the free. or The Army helps people get out of poverty.
    3. Learn to criticise your party or side of the argument in public. Being open and vulnerable increases the likelyhood of acceptance.
    4. Discuss ideas, not identities. Discuss policies, not politicians or personalities.

Proposal for a new social platform

  • Anonymous
  • Rewards posts that have a bypartisan appeal
  • Expose people to ideas within their latitude of acceptance

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