Are you the member of a herd?

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An availability cascade is a self-reinforcing process of collective belief formation by which an expressed perception triggers a chain reaction that gives the perception of increasing plausibility through its rising availability in public discourse.
~ Timur Kuran and Cass Sunstein

It’s my solemn duty to report that you may be part of a stampeding herd. This is not a partisan diatribe. It’s a reminder that there is power in numbers, especially with all these newfangled technologies. We need to develop good habits — starting with some careful reflection and introspection — before we reflexively pull the trigger on Facebook, Twitter or the social medium du jour. We must be sensitive to herd dynamics.

Remember also that your friends and enemies — whoever they may be — may be in the business of trying to trigger your outrage. That is, they’ll use an accusation — sometimes poorly substantiated — to start a social media cascade designed to pull you in. Timur Kuran and Cass Sunstein remind us how it works:

Individuals endorse the perception partly by learning from the apparent beliefs of others and partly by distorting their public responses in the interest of maintaining social acceptance. Availability entrepreneurs-activists who manipulate the content of public discourse strive to trigger availability cascades likely to advance their agendas.

Sometimes, once the accusation (or sentimentality trip, or whatever) has come through, the damage has been done. And we must reflect carefully before joining any such stampede, because joining it can make us complicit in destroying what it tramples.

Remember also that some information cascades are designed to magnify a bad. Even if you agree fundamentally with the moral assessment of some evil, you should stop to consider the damage you may be doing by focusing on the evil while leaving out other important information. Consider some examples:

● Whole Foods CEO and co-founder John Mackey uses a good portion of his company’s profits to help people in the third world with micro-financing — not to mention to grow his company and to share his profits with employees and suppliers. Mackey believes in “ethical” farming and other business practices. But Mackey did not and does not agree with Obamacare. When Mackey spoke out against this legislation in 2009, he triggered the herd. There were boycotts and other potentially bad side-effects of this stampede. As it happens, Whole Foods is fine today. The company weathered it. But I doubt the herd would have cared what good it might have trampled on when it began stampeding against Whole Foods that year. If it had been successful, it could have damaged every single good thing in the Whole Foods ecosystem — up to and including some of the poorest people in the world, who are alive today thanks to John Mackey’s generosity.

● An explosion in a Chinese factory kills 14 Chinese workers. The factory makes Apple products. The New York Times attempts to generate an information cascade with this irresponsible expose. It causes many to overlook the thousands of Chinese people who have found gainful employment thanks to Apple, the millions of people who have increased productivity and enjoyment thanks to Apple products and the hundreds of thousands of Americans who have jobs because of Jobs. But these are all just meaningless statistics when held up to ledes that bleed. Boycotts to follow, of course. People didn’t start boycotting Slim Jims due to the ConAgra explosion in North Carolina, which left three dead. Will we be boycotting biomass due to this explosion in East Texas? Has anyone called for the boycott of NASA given that 14 people have died in spaceflight? S**t happens, as they say. And it’s not always right and proper to jump on an information cascade with heavy demands.

● You’ve probably seen the Kony 2012 campaign. It may just be a perfect example of hastening an information cascade. Is it slacktivism run amok? I can’t say. But the sad fact is that in much of the world there is corruption and warlordism that leads to rape, murder, mutilation, abduction and worse. If you’ve seen the Kony 2012 campaign, you may now know a little bit about what’s going on in parts of Africa. But what about all the awful things going on everywhere else — like what’s going on mere miles south of the U.S. border? (Google “Zetas dismembered” if you have the stomach.) We may cry out for a Ugandan child and his cousins with mutilation scars. But corruption and warlordism, unfortunately, are symptoms of something much deeper than Joseph Kony: namely, bad institutions. If you want to help improve institutions (the rules of the game) in Africa, you might want to consider funding organizations that help with institution-building — such as the Peru-based Institute for Liberty and Democracy or even the new Free Cities Institute. Of course, check to see whether any NGO you’re considering is effective and transparent. (Invisible Children, which brought you Kony 2012, scores only two out of four stars for transparency, according to Charity Navigator.)

Look, we’re all “rationally ignorant” to some degree. That means few of us have the time to do all the digging necessary to find out whether there is another side to a story. And peddlers of the information cascade count on the shortage of time we can spend on such efforts. So what should we do?

Here are five things we can all do to stay sane, skeptical and yet still active in the Facebook age:

1.) Start with a skeptical posture: Assume that most organizations stay in business by scaring you, milking your empathy, pissing you off or appealing to your membership in some ideological tribe. Ask yourself: Is there any information that, if you possessed it, could make you change your mind?

2.) Approach with your head, not just your heart: If you’re feeling something strong, are you still listening to your head? One of the best ways to find out is to wait a day after you’ve “heard the pitch” or made contact with the viral content.

3.) Ten-extra-minutes Googling rule: Spend 10 more minutes than the amount of time that’s easy and comfortable researching the issue. Unless you’re Bill Gates, 10 minutes of your time is probably worth it to save the $10 you might have thrown at some Internet dilettante.

4.) Know (and seek to understand) thine enemy: What are the opponents saying? Make a good-faith effort to find out what the smartest, most reflective detractors are saying about something — even if you feel in your bones that you agree.

5.) Don’t transmit the virus: If, after some reflection, you still have questions about a meme, don’t transmit it. It’s that simple. You don’t have to “help change the world” or “boycott X” or whatever this time. There are plenty of herd-members who will move along without you.

It’s easy to get pulled into a herd. But remember that you’re an individual. You might even be capable of critical thinking. Why not take a deep breath and try it out?

Don’t get me wrong. There are times when the herd works well and it’s a good idea to join. The campaign against the SOPA legislation stopped it in its tracks. I’m certainly glad that happened. I would like to know where the herd was when the Senate passed the indefinite detention bill. Some of these things start to look like selective outrage or groupthink when other, really important things get by us.

Max Borders is finishing up a book on income inequality called “Superwealth.” Ironically, you can find a Kickstarter for his project here.

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