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Is social media the real idiot box?

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Is social media the real idiot box?

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Modern television is often believed to be the home of lowest common denominator drivel that is of little to no cultural value.  The slang term idiot box suggests that the blame for such a stream of inane rubbish lies firmly with the television companies, who chase ratings rather than any kind of artistic meaning.

With the Internet providing us with a platform to produce our own content, one might hope for a slightly brighter picture, but alas it seems that we may have been getting the kind of television we deserved after all.

A study, published recently, has explored the intellectual level of political output on Twitter, and was not all that complementary with its findings.  The researchers trawled through nearly 300 million tweets from just under 200,000 ‘politically engaged’ users during the 2012 presidential elections.

What they found was there was little of great insight being shared, but a rather lot of retweeting of political superstars, such as @billmaher and @seanhannity.

“Frankly, we’re rather disappointed,” says Cornell’s Drew Margolin. “Social media has so much potential to improve the diversity of voices and quality of exchanges in political discussion by giving individuals the technological capability to compete with the mass media in disseminating information, setting agendas and framing conversation.”

The research found that, during live media events, we seem less intent on voicing individual opinions than we do on forming a kind of hive mind.  The data showed how our usual interpersonal social dynamics are replaced with a devoted attention lavished upon a small number of existing ‘stars’.

We’ve seen in other fields how the digital world has concentrated wealth in the hands of the few, but surprisingly it also seems to be concentrating thoughts and opinions in an equal manner.  The huge number of comments during the elections seemed to do much more for the fortunes of these elite commentators than it did for wider political discourse.

In defense of the retweeting masses, the authors wrote: “The uncertainty of live events may predispose users to seek information from authorities and their expert sense making processes rather than from their peers.”

Of course, seeking out expert opinion is fine, just so long as you don’t blindly regurgitate everything you’re given.

“Combined with our findings about concentrated attention to elite voices and diminished use of interpersonal communication,” the researchers wrote, “these factors could combine to create ideal conditions for rumor persistence, belief polarization and the dissemination of misinformation that can – intentionally or unintentionally – undermine deliberation.”

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