Why is Nate Silver dunking on our new paper?

Issue 14: Why social media is a dumpster fire; out-group hate goes viral online; the Constitution of Knowledge; and the final cover for The Power of Us.

It feels there are endless stories about why social media has become a dumpster fire. As Vox noted in 2018:

“The past few months have brought a hurricane of horror stories about social media sites gone haywire. Facebook and Instagram hijacked by Russian trolls. YouTube struggling to fight an army of conspiracy theorists. Twitter coming to terms with its own fake news problem. Even Pinterest isn’t safe from misuse by bad actors.

They put together this short video on some of our research, along with an interview with Jay:

“Nearly every story has ended the same way — with the owners of the platforms apologizing and pledging to do better… But the problem with these social media sites isn’t that a few bad apples are ruining the fun. It’s that they’re designed to reward bad apples.”

Despite the promises to do better, the same problems and perverse incentives seem to persist.

Which brings us to last week. Jay was one of the authors of a new paper about what can be done promote sustainable collective behavior in the age of social media. The paper was spearheaded by Joe Bak Coleman, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Washington Center for an Informed Public, and included 17 authors from a variety of fields with expertise on these issues.

One of our co-authors, Carl Bergstrom, a prominent biologist and author of “Calling Bullshit: The Art of Skepticism in a Data Driven World”, wrote a brief summary of the paper on Twitter (you can see his summary below):

It is common enough in science for authors to share their work on social media. And it’s equally normal for other people (and a few anonymous accounts) to offer their thoughts, ranging from praise to criticism to outrage. But this particular thread went more viral than usual and attracted the ire of Nate Silver, founder of FiveThirtyEight.

Silver blasted out to his millions of followers that our paper offered “a pretty simplistic view…and would have benefited from more input from experts in politics, communications and journalism”.

This would be a fair critique of many papers. But we were surprised to see it leveled at this one. This paper did, in fact, have authors who were experts in these areas!

This is the type of thing Silver could easily have discovered by looking at the list of authors, reading the paper, or reviewing the reference list where he would see citations from these fields. Why, then, would he slam the paper to his 3.6 million followers on these grounds?

This seemed particularly surprising coming from someone like Nate Silver, whose brand—as we have always perceived it, anyway—is about high quality, data driven analysis. From his book ‘The Signal and the Noise’ to his election forecasts, Silver is a source we have admired for sticking to the facts when others do not. (Full disclosure: We incessantly check FiveThirtyEight as major elections approach and Jay even paid to attend a FiveThirtyEight panel led by Silver at NYU.)

Silver made his name out-predicting and out-matching pundits with more superficial analyses. Yet his reaction to our paper seemed more like a contrarian hot take than a careful analysis. Rather than engaging with the case we’d made, he dunked on it.

Of course, Silver is hardly alone in firing off a snarky tweet. Indeed, we have been known on occasion to do it rather too hastily ourselves.

One of the current norms on social media is that people feel free to criticize content they haven’t even read. This was beautifully illustrated by an April’s Fools Prank executed by NPR in 2014. They posted an article with the provocative headline: “Why Doesn’t America Read Anymore?”

If you clicked the link and read the article, you saw this: “We sometimes get the sense that some people are commenting on NPR stories that they haven't actually read. If you are reading this, please like this post and do not comment on it. Then let's see what people have to say about this ‘story’.“

Before long, their comments section was full of strenuous opinions from people who hadn’t bothered to read enough text to realize it was a gag. One person angrily wrote: “Speak for yourself. My husband, myself, family, friends, read books all. the. time.”

Ironically, these tendencies toward rapid reactions and combative postures are precisely types of issues we raised in our paper. We noted that the age of social media and the attention economy on these platforms has created major problems for incentivizing high-quality information:

“Developments in media technology have reduced the granularity at which messages can be monetized in an information economy. Subscription-based models are receding as search engines, aggregator sites, social media platforms, and other innovations have created arenas of head-to-head competition among individual messages at the smallest scales of resolution. The unvarnished truth is no longer enough to prevail in the competition for attention.”

Many of us spend hours each day swimming in seas of under-informed opinion. For some influencers, income is now yoked to the viral spread of hot takes. For some politicians, spin has been replaced by outright misinformation. And social media companies often have little incentive to improve the information quality on their platforms. As long as conflict and faux controversies like this keep arising, platforms benefit from monetizing that engagement. Like rubberneckers driving by an accident, people slow down to check out the carnage.

E.O. Wilson probably put it best, when he wrote:

“The real problem of humanity is the following: We have Paleolithic emotions, medieval institutions and godlike technology. And it is terrifically dangerous, and it is now approaching a point of crisis overall.”


Research round up

A few days after the controversy with Nate Silver on Twitter, a new paper by Steve Rathje, Jay and Sander van der Linden revealed that dunking on out-group members is one of the most effective ways to spread information in the current online ecosystem. Remarkably, “each individual term referring to the political out-group increased the odds of a social media post being shared by 67%”.

Clearly inspired by our paper, Gizmodo proceeded to dunk on Jay and his compatriots for studying a phenomenon this obvious:

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What we are reading

Ok, we haven’t read it yet (because it just came out a few days ago), but this podcast with Jonathan Rauch made us eager to pick up his new book, ‘The Constitution of Knowledge’. Rauch says, “The genius of the reality-based community is that we kill our hypotheses not one another.”


The final cover for “The Power of Us”

As many of you know, our book was originally going to have a flashy yellow cover. Our initial reaction when the publisher first revealed it was, “Wow, that is very yellow!” But the cover grew on us and were were happy with it. Then, days before the book was to go to press, our UK publisher sent us an entirely different cover—white, with a group of people composing the word “US”.

What to do? Go with the attention-grabbing yellow cover? Or the elegant white one? Jay posted polls on his social media accounts to help us out and we even consulted our kids.

Almost everyone had a strong opinion. After receiving nearly 300 comments, plus emails and text messages, the case was clear: Three quarters preferred the white cover. Our favorite comment was from Sonia Funk on LinkedIn who saw the image above and wrote:

THANKS TO EVERYONE who offered their advice! You can see the new cover on our website for The Power Of Us, along with a summary of the book, brief descriptions of each chapter, upcoming events, and initial reviews.


Seeking Newsletter Submissions

Send us a short description of your paper or interview about your book. We will share submissions related to social identity & group dynamics in our letter.


Use “The Power of Us” for Teaching

If you teach a course that addresses topics like the nature of the self, social identity, cult psychology, social beliefs, intergroup relations, prejudice & stereotyping, polarization, crowd behavior, social norms, conformity, dissent, or leadership, you might be interested in assigning The Power of Us. Fill out this simple form to get a copy


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