Friday 18 October 2019

Bad Big Tech, trolls and bullies – is 'social' really just a dirty word?

When we think of social influence, what comes to mind is Bad Big Tech, trolls and bullies. But let's not forget there's a good side to social networks, argues Michael Sanders

Eyes on the prize: Facebook and Twitter have gotten rich unleashing forces that they now seem unable to control
Eyes on the prize: Facebook and Twitter have gotten rich unleashing forces that they now seem unable to control

Michael Sanders

The word "social" is having a hard time of it at the moment. When we think of social networks, or social media, we think of online bullying and harassment, we think of Cambridge Analytica and Russian trolls allegedly seeking to manipulate the results of the US general election and the UK's Brexit referendum, both with lasting consequences for countries at home and abroad, not least for Ireland.

We also think about the companies behind these networks - Facebook and Twitter - who have gotten rich unleashing forces that they now seem unable to control, and who show disdain for democratically elected accountability, be that the EU Parliament or the United States Congress, all the while not paying as much tax as it might be argued they could or should on the proceeds of their good fortune.

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It's no surprise then that the idea of "social influence" - people being influenced by those around them - attracts a certain amount of worry both inside of government and outside of it. Much of this is justified, and it's pretty clear that social influence can be used for questionable or even nefarious purposes.

Yet social influence can't be all bad - can it? After all, social influence - us being influenced by people around us, and in turn influencing others - predates modern day, internet-based social networks by millennia. The history of humanity's rise from hunter-gatherers to agricultural society through all the way to the modern day is a social one - and our society depends on them.

Currency, and the belief that coins and bits of plastic or paper have value, and should be accepted as currency, is effectively a shared social delusion - everyone around us acts as though it's true and so it is - but if enough of us were to stop believing, it would stop being true.

An important step in the fight against cancer was the decision to ban smoking in workplaces and public spaces - an area where Ireland lead the world with the first workplace smoking ban back in 2014. But this law was unenforceable -the police could hardly be in every workplace, every pub, every public space, to punish any wrongdoers. But they needn't be, the social cue sent by the ban means that anyone lighting up in the office would risk ostracization by their fellow employees - something that many of us would find worse than a fine.

Social influence is also a factor in the small things in our lives. For example, my wife goes open water swimming on Sunday mornings. She greatly enjoys the activity, and the company of the other swimmers both during the swim itself and over a cup of tea afterwards. She only started going, however, because she was invited by her friend Fiona, who had in turn previously been invited to such a swim by another friend - thousands of small bits of social influence have shaped the direction of your life. What's more, when Fiona is out of town, it's quite likely that my wife will skip swimming as well.

These influences may seem trivial, but they have real world consequences too. A study run at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire showed that your (randomly selected) roommate in your first year at university has a pretty big impact on your GPA, while the economists Imran Rasul and Oriana Bandiera (this year's winners of the prestigious Yrjö Jahnsson Award for the best European economists under 45), show that incentives at work can have a very different effect if we're working with friends rather than with strangers.

If our preferences for particular activities, for television shows and even how smart and productive we are is passively influenced by those around us (and we're influencing them right back), how powerful could they be if we consciously tried to harness them for good?

Behavioural economics

This, alongside an exploration of the dark side of social influence, is the main topic of Social Butterflies, the book that I've just published with Susannah Hume. For most of the last decade, both of us worked at the Behavioural Insights Team, a social purpose company based in London which has been at the forefront of insights from behavioural economics to use social influence for good.

In one experiment, we worked with a large investment bank trying to get their staff to donate a day's salary to charity. The campaign was successful, raising about half a million pounds each year - but it was stuck, with 6pc of people donating. We changed the way the communications were sent - so that as well as HR emailing everyone to tell them about the campaign, they also sent targeted emails to a few people who we thought would be effective nodes in employees' network for social diffusion - middle managers who had previously given to the campaign - asking them to help get more people involved. The results were pretty amazing, boosting donation rates to 24pc, as these middle managers sprang into action and encouraged their friends and colleagues to follow suit.

We've also seen how we forge new social connections to help us thrive in new places. The Behavioural Insights Team's web platform "Networky" let young people attending a summer camp, a new school, or university, buddy up, either with each other or another young person a year ahead of them. In their most recent project, this reduced drop-out from sixth form colleges by a third, giving more students a chance at academic success - all through the power of social influence.

There are dozens more examples of governments and organisations using social influence for good to be found in Social Butterflies - but the lesson is clear - our social instincts can be forces for ill, but they can be tremendous forces for good if used thoughtfully. It's time for governments, organisations and citizens to get in the game.

Michael Sanders is a Reader in Public Policy at King's College London, and until recently he was Chief Scientist of the UK's Behavioural Insights Team. His new book is called 'Social Butterflies'

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