Things Fall Apart: How Social Media Leads to a Less Stable World

Commentary by Curtis Hougland at Knowledge@Wharton: “James Foley. David Haines. Steven Sotloff. The list of people beheaded by followers of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) keeps growing. The filming of these acts on video and distribution via social media platforms such as Twitter represent a geopolitical trend in which social media has become the new frontline for proxy wars across the globe. While social media does indeed advance connectivity and wealth among people, its proliferation at the same time results in a markedly less stable world.
That social media benefits mankind is irrefutable. I have been an evangelist for the power of new media for 20 years. However, technology in the form of globalized communication, transportation and supply chains conspires to make today’s world more complex. Events in any corner of the world now impact the rest of the globe quickly and sharply. Nations are being pulled apart along sectarian seams in Iraq, tribal divisions in Afghanistan, national interests in Ukraine and territorial fences in Gaza. These conflicts portend a quickening of global unrest, confirmed by Foreign Policy magazine’s map of civil protest. The ISIS videos are simply the exposed wire. I believe that over the next century, even great nations will Balkanize — break into smaller nations. One of the principal drivers of this Balkanization is social media Twitter .
Social media is a behavior, an expression of the innate human need to socialize and share experiences. Social media is not simply a set of technology channels and networks. Both the public and private sectors have underestimated the human imperative to behave socially. The evidence is now clear with more than 52% of the population living in cities and approximately 2 billion people active in social media globally. Some 96% of content emanates from individuals, not brands, media or governments — a volume that far exceeds participation in democratic elections.
Social media is not egalitarian, though. Despite the exponential growth of user-generated content, people prefer to congregate online around like-minded individuals. Rather than seek out new beliefs, people choose to reinforce their existing political opinions through their actions online. This is illustrated in Pew Internet’s 2014 study, “Mapping Twitter Topic Networks from Polarized Crowds to Community Clusters.” Individuals self-organize by affinity, and within affinity, by sensibility and personality. The ecosystem of social media is predicated on delivering more of what the user already likes. This, precisely, is the function of a Follow or Like. In this way, media coagulates rather than fragments online….”