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Legitimacy, Rationality, and the Danger of Social Media for Peaceful Societies

Legitimacy and trust in government are critically important for good governance and peace, as discussed in Governance for Peace, a new book by David Cortright, Conor Seyle, and Kristen Wall. According to the authors, legitimacy is

“(the) popular belief that political authority in a given setting is appropriately constituted and has the right to make public decisions. When governing systems are accepted as legitimate, people abide by public decisions even if they don’t agree with or benefit from them.”

The authors rightly define legitimacy as a person’s assessment of government based on their perception and not necessarily fact. Legitimacy is not an objective or easily measurable factor. Likewise, the authors point out that “perceptions of legitimacy are strongly associated with relations of trust between state and society and with networks of political and social integration.” 

This is an “all good things work together” argument. But, what happens when people lose trust in government? According to the book, governments rely on despotic power to enforce the rule of law because society won’t do so by choice. Once that social contract is in question that’s when, as Chinua Achebe wrote, things fall apart. During the Arab Spring, waves of popular protests against despotic rulers largely resulted in violent repression. The Syrian and Yemeni civil wars continue to rage as the result of protests calling for more transparent and legitimate government.

The problem here is that people’s perceptions are not always based on rational criteria. We are ripe for manipulation regardless of what kind of political system we live under. As such, the erosion of trust in political institutions can have significant effects on peace and social well-being.  

The Russian government seems to understand how crucial public trust is to peaceful societies. A controversial Russian-coordinated social media campaign was executed to heighten social tensions in the US and influence the outcome of its Presidential election. This included buying ads and creating false accounts on Twitter and Facebook to inflame tensions. Many of them were targeted at raising social tensions among Americans, like false stories on police brutality, ads to support WikiLeaks, anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim rhetoric, and equating Hillary Clinton with the devil.  The New York Times has revealed that these activities are now under Congressional investigation.

At a glance, these ads may seem too absurd to have affected the election. But understanding some components of human psychology can show the ways in which they influence people’s opinions of a given candidate, their perception of trust in government, or how they think about a given political issue.  

The human mind works to make our complicated external world more easily understood, but relies more on our associative memory. Daniel Kahneman in Thinking, Fast and Slow writes about our “two minds”: System 1 and system 2. System 1 operates quickly with little conscious effort. System 2 requires effort and attention to details, “often associated with the subjective experience of agency, choice, and concentration.” 

Our system 2 is lazy. We don’t want to exert effort if we don’t have to. Our system 1 works quickly and develops heuristics, or mental “short cuts”, that allow us to better understand our world.

Priming and confirmation bias are examples of our system 1 at work. We are more likely to make quick judgements based on our past experiences, associations, or values than when presented with factual or statistical information (priming). Additionally, we strengthen our existing belief system when presented with information that confirms or denies these existing beliefs (confirmation bias), regardless if this information is factually correct.

The academic literature on this topic is not settled. A replication crisis in social psychology is calling into question the robustness of some of these findings. However, it could still have direct and measurable effects on political behavior. Two fundamental studies that display priming and confirmation bias demonstrate this effect:

  • A 2000 study of voting patterns in Arizona found that support for public school funding was significantly higher for people when they were exposed to images of classrooms and lockers than those who were not.
  • A 1979 study tested college students who already had strong beliefs for or against capital punishment. When presented with false studies that either confirm or confront their beliefs, “they are apt to accept “confirming” evidence at face value while subjecting “disconfirming” evidence to critical evaluation. As a result, they draw undue support for their initial position from mixed or random empirical findings.”

So what? Let’s say that the American voters are exposed to online images via social media suggesting that immigrants pose a threat, like associating Muslim immigrants with terrorism or Mexican immigrants with drugs. This could prime these voters to support more restrictive immigration policies from areas of the world that they now consider dangerous. When presented with factual information to the contrary, they are apt to reject it and more strongly support their existing beliefs. This is especially true if these voters have limited experience interacting with immigrant populations.

However, there’s a silver lining. We can change our minds thanks to our lazy but more deliberative system 2. A study conducted by Sloman and Fernbach asked people for their opinions on controversial political issues like single-payer health care. After asked to rate how strongly they agreed or disagreed with a policy, they were then asked to explain in as much detail as possible the impacts of each of their policy positions. Here, by engaging our system 2, participants in this study realized how little they knew and moderated their once strongly held positions.

Legitimacy and trust in government is vital for peaceful societies. How well is government delivering on key social provisions? How much can we trust government? Our perception of these issues are easy to manipulate by the images we view and the articles we read online. The more we understand this, the more careful we can be about how we evaluate our government.