A recent quote by the most known Italian contemporary writer, Umberto Eco, captured significant attention on the web:
“Social media gives legions of idiots the right to speak when they once only spoke at a bar after a glass of wine, without harming the community. Then they were quickly silenced, but now they have the same right to speak as a Nobel Prize winner. It’s the invasion of the idiots.”
Among the many comments I liked more what Dr Jim West wrote on his blog:
“… the idiots have the right to speak but they should have no expectation that anyone with sense will listen to them much less take them seriously. The idiots have as much right to be heard as CNN and the Huffington Post and Fox News and NBC and ABC and CBS and the Discovery Channel and the History Channel. But like those outlets of infotainment, they have no right to be taken seriously when they speak about matters like theology or history or exegesis or archaeology.
Indeed, the truth is, only idiots heed idiots. So let them. Those who wish to know better will seek to know better and those who are satisfied with rank ignorance, stupidity, and misinformation will never care for the truth any more than a person who watches the Naked Archaeologist really cares about the facts. Their ignorance is invincible. They should be left to it. To rot in the swampy stew of their own putrid mindlessness.”
It is not the first time Eco refers to idiots. In his Foucault’s Pendulum, he identified four categories of people:
“There are four kinds of people in this world: cretins, fools, morons, and lunatics… If you take a good look, everybody fits into one of these categories. Each of us is sometimes a cretin, a fool, a moron, or a lunatic. A normal person is just a reasonable mix of these components, these four ideal types.”
If ordinary people populate social media, it should be no surprise if a good lot of them fell in the above categories. Still, it may be worth looking at a more scientific assessment, to validate Eco’s skepticism.
A study by Teresa Correa *, Amber Willard Hinsley, Homero Gil de Zúñiga published a few years ago tried to assess “Who interacts on the Web?: The intersection of users’ personality and social media use.”
Here is the abstract of their paper:
In the increasingly user-generated Web, users’ personality traits may be crucial factors leading them to engage in this participatory media. The literature suggests factors such as extraversion, emotional stability and openness to experience are related to uses of social applications on the Internet.
Using a national sample of US adults, this study investigated the relationship between these three dimensions of the BigFive model and social media use (defined as use of social networking sites and instant messages). It also examined whether gender and age played a role in that dynamic.
Results revealed that while extraversion and openness to experiences were positively related to social media use, emotional stability was a negative predictor, controlling for socio-demographics and life satisfaction.
These findings differed by gender and age. While extraverted men and women were both likely to be more frequent users of social media tools, only the men with greater degrees of emotional instability were more regular The relationship between extraversion and social media use was particularly important among the young adult cohort. Conversely, being open to new experiences emerged as an important personality predictor of social media use for the more mature segment of the sample.
Trying to translate scientific language into approximate plain language, it appears that social media frequent users are not necessarily idiots (as per Eco’s definition) but are more likely to be extroverts who are open to new experiences but also people with greater degrees of emotional instability.
While earlier studies hypothesized that the anonymity of the Internet attracted people who were less comfortable with themselves and who otherwise had trouble making connections with others, more recent studies maintain that this negative connotation applies more to group-like conversations between individuals who are largely unknown to each other, while extroverts prevail in chats among people who know each other.
Gender presented another difference among personality traits of SM users. While extraverted men and women were both likely to be more frequent users of social media tools, only the men with greater degrees of emotional instability were more regular users. No significant relationship existed between women and emotional stability. This may illustrate the differences in the ways men and women communicate – women place a greater emphasis on forging connections with others and building a sense of community.
As per Facebook, another study by Tracii Ryan and Sophia Xenos revealed that users tend to be more extroverted and narcissistic, but less conscientious and socially lonely, than nonusers. Furthermore, frequency of Facebook use and preferences for specific features were also shown to vary as a result of certain characteristics, such as neuroticism, loneliness, shyness and narcissism.
As a Facebook user I am afraid to position myself in the above categories…
But I feel better if I look at the statistics about Facebook demography. It appears that a large majority comprises young people who are college graduate and earn quite a lot. Difficult to reconcile this with the stereotype of a village idiot.
All of this not to enter into a sociology debate, but just to confirm that Eco is wrong in generalizing. Yes, there are idiots contributing to Social Media, and they may represent a larger share – compared to the overall population – when it comes to places where they can remain anonymous. Indeed an ordinary village idiot has no problem in showing his face.
Still, Eco’s strong statement was a good reminder of the need to watch for idiots while we browse internet pages.
A clear example was an experiment made by Ahmad al-Mahmoud, an Iraqi who lives in London and runs a Twitter account called @IraqSurveys. The account usually collates serious news about what’s happening in the country, and has nearly 14,000 followers. As reported in a story by the BBC, one day he “got bored”, and he tweeted that Islamic State had withdrawn from a non existing place called Shichwa. He even shared Photoshopped pictures of news outlets which appeared to show the battle being discussed. People started adding to it, making maps like Sim City,” he told BBC Trending. Some posted fake news about the fight, and one user even made a map of the battlefield. In 48 hours of running the gag, pro-government Iraqis and militia fans started tweeting the news that ISIS was escaping a pitched battle and that the Hashd were victorious and on the move. Realising that the joke was getting out of hand, Mahmoud called a halt to the prank after two days. If you want to have fun search on Twitter for the hashtag #Shichwa.
Of note, Shichwa is a kind of leather pouch used by Iraqis to churn milk into butter. Mr Mahmoud said the allusion to “churnalism” – the term for recycling inadequately checked news – was a “happy coincidence”.
I was surprised not to find any echo of this faked battle in western reporting, until the fake was revealed. It was probably only because all the related traffic was in Arabic. But the lesson is still clear. Trolls, idiots and disinformation professionals are always at work and we all need to find ways to double check before echoing what we read.
 The BigFive framework is a model of personality that contains five factors representing personality traits at a broad level: extraversion, neuroticism, openness to experiences, agreeableness, and conscientiousness (Ehrenberg et al., 2008; John & Srivastava, 1999).