Social media makes for lousy consensus

Leo Morris Submitted photo

I’ve been reading up on the wisdom of the crowd, the theory holding that a large group of people’s aggregated answers to certain questions are often superior to the answer given by any individual within the group, even one judged to be an expert on the subject at hand.

It’s a well-documented phenomenon with a sterling pedigree, however our many experiences with various versions of “the public is a moron” might lead us to believe otherwise. The crowd’s wisdom is most evident when matters of fact are involved, that is, when there is a “right” answer to be discovered.

The classic example is from a contest at a 1906 county fair in England at which 800 people participated in guessing the weight of a slaughtered and dressed ox. Statistician Francis Galton observed that the median guess of 1,207 pounds was within 1 percent of the true weight of 1,198 pounds. In 1968, the Navy asked a wide group of individuals for their best guess on the location of the missing submarine Scorpion. The group’s average guess was just 220 yards from the location where it was eventually found.

Here’s where it gets interesting.

Researchers have identified four criteria that make mining crowd wisdom an effective tool:

Independence. Each person making a guess must do so in ignorance of what other people have guessed. Take away independence, and people feed off each other’s answers and move toward a “consensus” often far afield from the correct answer.

Diversity. No, not the shallow diversity we hear so much about today — skin color, language spoken, etc. No, what is meant is diversity of life experiences. In the ox experiment, the guessers included butchers and farmers, housewives and shop owners. Without diversity, people will drift toward shared biases. A crowd of football fans, for example, will choose the local team as the probable winner in an upcoming game.

Decentralization. Private, local knowledge is the best source for people making guesses to draw upon. You shouldn’t ask people in Nevada to guess the probability of snow in Indiana tomorrow.

Aggregation. There has to be a way to group people’s responses into a single collective guess, an average, for example, or a mean or a specific location on a map.

Except for aggregation, it should be noted, all of those criteria are absent from today’s social media. And “Hey, look at how morally superior I am to all the evil people on the other side” repeated a million times is not a reasoned, thoughtful collective response.

There is no independence. The virtue signalers copy each other so much that the crowd becomes a herd, which then becomes a howling, mindless mob.

There is no diversity. Common sense suggests that to reach a well-thought-out conclusion, a variety of opinions ought to be thrashed out. But dissenting views are labeled “Bad Thought” and chased out of the debate.

There is no decentralization. “Current wisdom” is not “local knowledge,” and arrogance and ignorance are a dangerous combination.

It won’t do to excuse today’s social media shallowness and cruelty as the natural excess and carelessness with which people have always expressed opinions, to assert that we are not, after all, dealing with matters of fact around which the wisdom of the crowd can coalesce. As the nasty episode of the boys from Covington Catholic demonstrates, the howling mob is quite able and willing to be despicably wrong about concrete information that could have been easily verified or disproved.

Based on the briefest of video clips, our self-identified moral superiors, which included academics, mainstream journalists and politicians from both left and right, gleefully vilified a group of teenagers who were innocent bystanders at the destruction of their own reputations. And faced with the evidence that they were clownishly wrong, many of the perpetrators of the outrage have refused to acknowledge their stupidity, let alone apologize for it.

This is how agendas are set these days, by monsters with glib, empty slogans abetted by trembling cowards who let themselves be herded into the monsters’ mobs.

It’s of more than passing interest to Hoosiers. That mob descended on Indiana during the late, great Religious Freedom Restoration Act controversy and declared the state a slime pit of intolerance and bigotry. And we cowered before it, ceding our agenda to the condescending snobs who think we’re rubes and hicks anyway. And if the General Assembly gets too deep into a discussion of a Hate Crimes law, the mob will return to school the bumpkins again.

Will we give in to it again, or finally come to realize that a crowd of Hoosiers has the decentralization, diversity and local knowledge to arrive at wisdom on its own?

The question is not whether RFRA or a Hate Crimes law is good or bad, unnecessary or defensible, harmful or helpful. The question is whether we decide to choose our own path or allow others to do it for us.

Leo Morris is a columnist for The Indiana Policy Review. Contact him at [email protected]. Send comments to [email protected].