The Exaggeration Effect

Online media is not quite the same as traditional media, especially when it comes to news. Before social networks and global content forums peoples' opinions on the news were pretty limited to letters to the editor. An editor could of course choose which letters to publish, and I think that with the advent of commenting systems on internet news sites it would be relatively safe to say that editors had trash cans full of letters to the editor that were never published.

Now things are different. If you can't comment on a particular post, you can share with your social networks. Instead of just relating the news, you can add your opinion. As some of the more sensational news sources have recognized, people surely must notice that posts from neutral sources with neutral considered opinion are glossed over by followers.

A need for worth

This is where our humanness kicks in and we realise that in order to get attention, we have to be provocative. This encourages us to share sensational stories, but even more worryingly, it encourages us to soup up our opinions on them. The attention feels good, and to some extent we feel good because we feel like we have done a service to our fellow humans. If we get attention and appreciation we feel like we have worth to others. There is nothing wrong with these feelings, but they can drive us mad with artificial outrage.

A need for consensus

Even though people don't always want to admit it, it feels good when people tell us that we are right or that they agree with us (which is just another way of telling us we are right). Consensus creates harmony in our minds that makes us feel content that we are on the right path. Moral consensus makes us feel especially good, because it  feels like others cherish the same values that we do. Our causes are the right, heroic causes that everyone should take up. Condemnation forms a part of this method for eliciting moral consensus. If you take the need for worth, which causes us to exaggerate to get attention, and add it to the effect of our need for moral consensus, then we see what we generally see on the internet: unbridled and seemingly blind moral outrage. I am not suggesting that the feelings of moral outrage are not genuine, they are. What I am suggesting is that  they are exaggerated by the effect that others are watching what we're doing, and we want their attention, appreciation and consensus.

A need for putting our needs first

There are countless problems in the world. The sum of people on planet earth pick which things they think are important to deal with and then steer everyone in that direction slowly. Convincing others that an issue is important, generally known as raising awareness, is a noble cause. In order for our ideas to be chosen by people bombarded with awareness of the troubles in the world, it makes total sense to exaggerate our position to make it seem like our need should be attended to first. We want our needs dealt with first, because we feel most strongly about them. If you listen to the plight of marine biologists on preservation of the oceans, you may sympathize, but if you own a certain breed of dog that is used for dog fighting, you may feel that the need to stop illegal dog fights or criminalize them where they are still allowed is a more pressing issue. Thus the need for ideas to compete subtly encourages exaggeration.

All the needs above create knock-on biases. If someone has a subconscious tendency to exaggerate their positions, they will likely have a subconscious bias against information that disconfirms the more sensational aspects of their position and a bias for information that supports a more sensational, but not necessarily accurate stance.

The tragedy is exacerbated by people who try to step in and disprove the sensationalism or point it out. The person who originally posted the position now has egg on their face, and embarrassment is not alleviated by admitting that you made a mistake, it just makes it worse. So the exaggerator will then tend to jog all over the internet to find confirming information, an exercise that is dangerously futile because it results in furiously quick scanning of articles and scientific papers, or visiting sources that typically reflect the same biases of the exaggerator. The more public the embarrassment is, or the closer the embarrassment is to the exaggerator's inner circles, the more severe the reaction to being disagreed with will be. The exercise then loses the original intent to raise an issue, and becomes a desperate defense of the exaggerator's ego.

Consequently, human beings on the internet look like raging apes. Scornful , dismissive and filled with hatred and bias. An almost innocuous event can have catastrophic effects, because when someone sees a minor infraction on their sense of what is right, it turns into an overnight internet sensation, and companies are forced to fire employees because of things they tweeted in order to keep their public image intact. While I agree that people should refrain from saying stupid bigoted things, I can't help but think that they truly feel that way, and the right course of action would be to correct them gently and let them off with a warning. Instead the internet can ruin peoples' lives simply because they are wrong about things.

This also results in a dangerous radical left bias in the online world that makes anything seemingly negative a massive taboo. Someone who posts a joke about a group that suffers discrimination may find themselves in the midst of a firestorm of outrage that could scar their lives permanently.1 The radical left makes speech an act that can be severely punished, driven by the multiplied effect of exaggerators who feel that they are doing doing something of worth, getting consensus and getting an important issue dealt with. The reason why the bias leans to the radical left is because they generally bully the bullies, or whatever society perceives to be the current bullies, be it large corporations, scientists experimenting on animals, banks, or the government. The law allows for the radical left to speak out, but the radical right, with their bigoted ways are generally shunned and suffer for their statements considerably more so than the left does.

Instead of seeing current issues as we should see them, namely as things that need to be dealt with, presented objectively in a balanced manner, we see a super exaggerated version of everything that is going wrong in the world. I don't pretend that some of these issues don't deserve outrage, but no issue deserves to be exaggerated. Maybe if we are more careful and we present balance we will get much less attention in our streams, feeds, and forums, but we will have done the right thing.

Note and disclaimer: The reason I write all of this is that the exaggeration effect is something I noticed in myself, and though I still fall short of not falling into it, I am trying to address it. I noticed the same symptoms that I exhibit also present in the posts and comments of others. I kind of extrapolated my own journey to those of the entire internet society. All I can hope for is that if I am incorrect, that I don't viciously defend this essay just to save face. :) 

1. I wanted to give an example, but I didn't want someone from the radical left trying to defend why such an example needs to be fought, and not be dealt with gently. I agree that negative things should be discouraged sometimes, but this is a topic that can be discussed elsewhere.