There is a joke among pilots—of course, I never heard any pilot actually saying the joke, but I found it online in plenty of commentaries about automation—according to which the best aeroplane crew is composed by a computer, a pilot, and a dog. The computer flies the plane. The pilot feeds the dog. The dog’s task is to bite the pilot whenever they try to interfere with the computer’s work. In other words: let the machine do the job for you.
Next month, I will give two talks – or two versions of the same talk – on “Cognitive attraction and online misinformation”. One will be in Den Bosch at the Jheronimus Academy of Data Science (where I hope to convince data scientists that cultural evolution and cognitive anthropology can be useful to understand online diffusion dynamics) and one, shortly after, at a Conference on Cultural Evolution organised by The Cognition, Behavior & Evolution Network at the University of Antwerp (where I will do the opposite, hoping to convince cultural evolutionists that studying online diffusion dynamics can be useful for us).
The phenomenon of online diffusion of misattributed quotes is so widespread that got its own dedicated meme. You may have seen a picture of Abraham Lincoln, the 16th President of the United States, that warns: ‘Don’t believe everything you read on the Internet just because there’s a picture with a quote next to it’. Lincoln, apparently nicknamed ‘Honest Abe’ when young, was assassinated in 1865, which makes it unlikely he had opinions about the Internet, and he is one of the historical celebrities most quoted (often incorrectly) on the web. Lincoln shares this questionable honour with the likes of Mark Twain and Albert Einstein. ‘The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result’ is one of the most famous quotes of Albert Einstein. Except that is not: the earliest known exact match of the quote appears in a Narcotics Anonymous information pamphlet in 1981, some 25 years after Einstein’s death.
Last week – April 25 – Facebook posted the 2018 first-quarter data on revenues and users (here the original post from Facebook.) The perhaps unexpected take-home message is that, in spite of the Cambridge Analytica data scandal, everything seems to go well with the social media. In particular, monthly users continued to grow at the expected rate (see the graph below – original here).
If you read this blog, or if you follow my activity on Twitter, you may know that I have a fairly relaxed attitude towards the “dangers” of the digital world. The great majority of supposed perils correspond more or less to what happens in our offline lives, and – in our offline lives too – we tend to be vulnerable to external influences only up to a certain point (here an excellent paper argumenting that we are not as gullible as we think – in fact, as we think others are). I wrote about the digital spread of fake news mirroring the traditional spread of rumours (according to BuzzFeed, the fake news that generated more engagement on Facebook in 2017 is titled “Babysitter transported to hospital after inserting a baby in her vagina”), about the inconsistencies of the “post-truth” narrative, or about the exaggeration of the digital echo-chambers danger (I would probably write differently today these two, rather old, posts).