Social media is turning us into thoughtless political extremists

Your Facebook feed is a virtual echo chamber. It serves the same purpose as Fox News or MSNBC.

Photo credit: MANDEL NGAN / Getty

Big Think Managing Editor Jason Gots recently penned a keen piece on political radicals on Facebook that got me thinking about the ways social media has altered our political rhetoric. At the risk of sounding too much like I'm sucking up to the boss, much of Jason's piece articulated the exact trepidations I feel about my own social media pals:


"There's this disconnect between your Facebook voice (always out for blood) and your in-person voice on those rare occasions when we meet (warm, funny, kind). I'm not saying this is a good thing — the not-talking-explicitly. I just don't like ugly arguments and ad hominem attacks, which I fear (with good reason) is what would happen if I responded to your Facebook posts, which, honestly, have gotten on my nerves to the point where I've hidden them from my News Feed."

Fulfilling the title of his blog — "Overthinking Everything" — Jason delves deeply into the topic. He rallies against the frustrating elements of extremism while questioning how the Facebook radicals of the world would behave should they ever achieve the power they seek. It's an interesting take that's really worth a read. What's that? There's something brown on my nose? I don't know what you're talking about.

The following isn't so much a response to Jason's piece as it is a minor digression or corollary. It began, fittingly, as a Facebook comment in which I attempted to explain why social media (like almost all contemporary media) is bad for political conversation. I should note that I feel the same about irritating conservatives on social media as I do about irritating liberals, though with the caveat that on most issues I lean toward the latter.

Two reasons why social media is bad for us, politically:

1. The echo chamber: I think a huge part of why we've become so divided as a society stems from the binaries mentioned in Jason's piece. Just as conservatives reinforce their anti-liberal sentiments by watching Fox News (and vice-versa with liberals and MSNBC), folks on Facebook curate their audience to form an echo chamber. It's basically self-structured propaganda, which is inherently anti-liberal by the classical definition. Flashier, more inflammatory ideas rise to the top of the conversation thus fueling the sorts of radical biases and heuristics that subconsciously radicalize people. The middle ground shrinks as rhetorical forces seek to push people farther left or farther right. I don't think that's healthy for a society, especially when radicalization comes attached to a sense of mean-spiritedness against the other side.

Stock photo ©spxChrome

2. Tactics and tone: The whole public-shaming culture bugs me because it portrays conflicting opinions as, at best, the stupid ramblings of uninformed idiots; at worst, straight-up evil. People act differently online than they do in person, often for the worse, because we see other people online as characters in a larger digital drama rather than real human beings. It engenders a sense of enmity against our peers that ought not have any place in a respectful and democratic society. It also kills me to see people shun, demean, or shame the ignorant, because ignorance is not always the result of volition. Demonization is lazy. It alienates people who might otherwise have come around to your beliefs had they not been made to feel bad. Social media and the SJW mindset (as much as I hate that term) both promote a shouting-down of the opposition rather than a thoughtful attempt to sway opinion. It, by design, divides rather than unites.

3. Memes are the lowest form of political discourse: I mean seriously, come on...



How are we supposed to have deep political discussions when so much of our rhetoric is splashing around in the kiddie pool? This is probably our current era's most chronic ill. Our collective attention spans are so short that most of us only crave shareable, single-serving doses that reflect our own worldview rather than pursue a thorough understanding of how the political world works. And those in the traditional media (who are ostensibly responsible for keeping the public informed) feed those cravings all the way to the bank. Social media isn't necessarily responsible for this (we are), but it's sure not helping things.


You can follow Robert on Twitter at @monteneggroll.

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New research establishes an unexpected connection.

Reactive oxygen species (ROS) accumulate in the gut of sleep-deprived fruit flies, one (left), seven (center) and ten (right) days without sleep.

Image source: Vaccaro et al, 2020/Harvard Medical School
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The study, from researchers at Harvard Medical School (HMS), is published in the journal Cell.

An unexpected culprit

The new research examines the mechanisms at play in sleep-deprived fruit flies and in mice — long-term sleep-deprivation experiments with humans are considered ethically iffy.

What the scientists found is that death from sleep deprivation is always preceded by a buildup of Reactive Oxygen Species (ROS) in the gut. These are not, as their name implies, living organisms. ROS are reactive molecules that are part of the immune system's response to invading microbes, and recent research suggests they're paradoxically key players in normal cell signal transduction and cell cycling as well. However, having an excess of ROS leads to oxidative stress, which is linked to "macromolecular damage and is implicated in various disease states such as atherosclerosis, diabetes, cancer, neurodegeneration, and aging." To prevent this, cellular defenses typically maintain a balance between ROS production and removal.

"We took an unbiased approach and searched throughout the body for indicators of damage from sleep deprivation," says senior study author Dragana Rogulja, admitting, "We were surprised to find it was the gut that plays a key role in causing death." The accumulation occurred in both sleep-deprived fruit flies and mice.

"Even more surprising," Rogulja recalls, "we found that premature death could be prevented. Each morning, we would all gather around to look at the flies, with disbelief to be honest. What we saw is that every time we could neutralize ROS in the gut, we could rescue the flies." Fruit flies given any of 11 antioxidant compounds — including melatonin, lipoic acid and NAD — that neutralize ROS buildups remained active and lived a normal length of time in spite of sleep deprivation. (The researchers note that these antioxidants did not extend the lifespans of non-sleep deprived control subjects.)

fly with thought bubble that says "What? I'm awake!"

Image source: Tomasz Klejdysz/Shutterstock/Big Think

The experiments

The study's tests were managed by co-first authors Alexandra Vaccaro and Yosef Kaplan Dor, both research fellows at HMS.

You may wonder how you compel a fruit fly to sleep, or for that matter, how you keep one awake. The researchers ascertained that fruit flies doze off in response to being shaken, and thus were the control subjects induced to snooze in their individual, warmed tubes. Each subject occupied its own 29 °C (84F) tube.

For their sleepless cohort, fruit flies were genetically manipulated to express a heat-sensitive protein in specific neurons. These neurons are known to suppress sleep, and did so — the fruit flies' activity levels, or lack thereof, were tracked using infrared beams.

Starting at Day 10 of sleep deprivation, fruit flies began dying, with all of them dead by Day 20. Control flies lived up to 40 days.

The scientists sought out markers that would indicate cell damage in their sleepless subjects. They saw no difference in brain tissue and elsewhere between the well-rested and sleep-deprived fruit flies, with the exception of one fruit fly.

However, in the guts of sleep-deprived fruit flies was a massive accumulation of ROS, which peaked around Day 10. Says Vaccaro, "We found that sleep-deprived flies were dying at the same pace, every time, and when we looked at markers of cell damage and death, the one tissue that really stood out was the gut." She adds, "I remember when we did the first experiment, you could immediately tell under the microscope that there was a striking difference. That almost never happens in lab research."

The experiments were repeated with mice who were gently kept awake for five days. Again, ROS built up over time in their small and large intestines but nowhere else.

As noted above, the administering of antioxidants alleviated the effect of the ROS buildup. In addition, flies that were modified to overproduce gut antioxidant enzymes were found to be immune to the damaging effects of sleep deprivation.

The research leaves some important questions unanswered. Says Kaplan Dor, "We still don't know why sleep loss causes ROS accumulation in the gut, and why this is lethal." He hypothesizes, "Sleep deprivation could directly affect the gut, but the trigger may also originate in the brain. Similarly, death could be due to damage in the gut or because high levels of ROS have systemic effects, or some combination of these."

The HMS researchers are now investigating the chemical pathways by which sleep-deprivation triggers the ROS buildup, and the means by which the ROS wreak cell havoc.

"We need to understand the biology of how sleep deprivation damages the body so that we can find ways to prevent this harm," says Rogulja.

Referring to the value of this study to humans, she notes,"So many of us are chronically sleep deprived. Even if we know staying up late every night is bad, we still do it. We believe we've identified a central issue that, when eliminated, allows for survival without sleep, at least in fruit flies."

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