Social media platforms are driving the creation of a new type of knowledge, even if it’s false, writes Timothy Graham.
Is Facebook responsible for child illness and even death due to vaccine-preventable diseases? Probably not, but recent research suggests we need a radical reconsideration of the role of social media platforms in shaping how people acquire knowledge, and ultimately make decisions, about critical topics such as vaccination and voting.
Individuals who are opposed to mandatory child vaccinations, known as ‘anti-vaxxers’ or ‘vaccine-hesitant’, spread information and mobilise their cause through social media. While Facebook has recently come under intense scrutiny, its contribution to preventable disease has not been on the agenda. However, a recent big data study of the anti-vaccination movement on Facebook suggests that the platform has an important role to play in fostering contentious ideas and enabling them to circulate and spread globally.
The study analysed more than 291,000 text comments from over 14,700 posts on six anti-vaccination Facebook pages from Australia and North America. Using an advanced form of text analysis known as topic modelling, the research found that anti-vaxxers on Facebook tend to be driven by similar themes or topics as conspiracy theorists.
The underlying factor driving anti-vaccination discussion is the notion that the government and media underplay, deny and perpetuate perceived harms caused by vaccinations.
Topics animating these anti-vaccination communities include the alleged media cover-up or denial of the extent of injury and death from vaccination. A particular favourite is the chemtrails conspiracy, which is a belief that the vapour trails emitted by aircraft are chemical compounds sprayed by the government and designed to subdue the population and control the weather.
Surprisingly, recent studies have shown that this kind of conspiratorial-style thinking is fairly prevalent in society, with some suggesting that around half of the population agree with common conspiracy theories.
To better understand this picture from a policy perspective, we need to take a step back and consider enduring questions in epistemology. What is knowledge and how is it produced? How do we come to know, for example, whether vaccines are beneficial for children and populations?
One way to think about it is in terms of a tug-of-war or interdependence between reason and experience. On the one hand, we have the mainstays of modernity: the scientific method, expertise, and statistical forms of reasoning. On the other are traditional and experiential forms of knowledge, generated through individual and shared experience and embodied in culture.
But in the online world, the production of knowledge becomes very complicated. The advent of Web 2.0 and social media has brought about a seismic shift in knowledge production. Websites such as Amazon and TripAdvisor have positioned users as what Axel Bruns termed ‘produsers’, who co-participate as both consumers and producers of information online.
In my doctoral thesis and more recent work, I have examined how ‘choice’ and decision-making are shaped through the architecture and design features of online spaces. User-submitted ratings and reviews are the driving force of platforms such as TripAdvisor, which aggregate the opinions of everyday people into crowd-sourced knowledge about goods and services. On these platforms, the traditional roles of expert reviewers and rigorous survey statistics are largely absent.
Platforms such as Facebook provide public spaces in which the opinions and experiences of individuals can be shared, modulated, aggregated, and solidified into knowledge.
For example, when a post about vaccine injuries is shared on a popular anti-vaccination Facebook page such as Dr Tenpenny, what gives ‘credibility’ to the information is the number of ‘likes’ and positive reactions that it receives from the community – not the opinions of scientific experts or the results of peer-reviewed research.
Instead, these public pages enable people with similar mindsets to share, validate and inform their experiences and beliefs on topics such as vaccination.
The design features and architecture of the space are crucial ingredients. Seemingly innocuous features such as ratings systems (for example upvote and downvote buttons) have a key role to play in enabling these spaces to function and grow. Information is authorised by the crowd. Emotional affect is amplified through upvotes, shares and reactions.
This is not to argue that these technologies somehow determine social processes, but rather that they have an important role in shaping how knowledge circulates and is produced.
Winston Churchill once said, ‘we shape our buildings and afterwards our buildings shape us’. Accordingly, we need to be aware of how Facebook and other social media platforms foster spaces where people come to form their beliefs and knowledge about important topics of the day, particularly where human life and wellbeing is at risk. A major and often overlooked issue is how knowledge is produced in online social spaces such as public Facebook pages.
Despite complex issues around free speech, social media platforms need to be regulated and held to the same level of accountability as other spaces where people socialise, share information, and form their identity and beliefs. Policy initiatives that attend to how knowledge functions and is produced through social media platforms are more likely to produce positive outcomes and long-term results.