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What We Strive For

In the aftermath of the Paris attacks, social media (like with every other big event) explodes with information, whether accurate or not. In many ways, it becomes an information cascade, with people on Twitter retweeting photos or posts of “shocking news” as to who the real culprits behind wrongdoings are. Clearly, if we knew that photoshop was involved in the selfie of the Sikh man who was merely holding up an iPad and not a Quran we would not retweet that photo. However, this begs the question of why we as users do not do the research ourselves to test the accuracy of such posts and instead choose merely to look at the number of retweets.

The answer is simple: information cascade. Even if we believe that Muslims are no more likely to be terrorists than people from other religions (well, some of us at least), the overwhelming societal opinion makes it easy to give up our own beliefs to take the easy route and just follow the crowd. However, there is more at work here than just merely rational agents making simple choices based on information known. Indeed, life would be a lot simpler if that were true. But it is impossible for theories to encompass the nuances of the human psychology. The theory of information cascades does not include two very important factors (not aspects that determine our rationality) that also contribute to cascades: anchoring and desire. Anchoring is where we trust the first piece of information we get more (and indeed, there’s no rational basis for this one). Desire, on the other hand, is that we are more likely to accept information already in line with our beliefs or that we want to be true. This is just makes it all the harder to stop cascades when they start; we can no longer merely appeal to people’s rational sides.

An information cascade is a phenomenon more easily contributed to than described, which is a rarity. Describing it, after all, takes some effort, while joining in sometimes merely takes clicking that retweet or reblog button. Not all information cascades are bad. The #StrandedinUS hashtag provides a quick way for Parisians to know where to get help from, help that might not be available through any other means. This, then, means that we as rational agents must decide ourselves how we will wield the internet as a tool: for a good or for bad. Often, the two can get muddled, with good intentions leading to bad outcomes with the spread of misinformation. Sometimes all it takes to right a wrong is a little bit of extra research.


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