Folk Theorem and Internet
We’re increasing being exposed to audio and video recordings of public or even private incidents on the internet and social media. One of the potential reasons for uploading such incidents could be driven by a need for some forms of judgements or exposure of injustices. There are many other reasons which includes profits, fame, and more which would not be the focus on this article.
Often than not, the video and audio recordings only capture part of the incident. The details of what happened before the recordings and after the recordings often remain unknown (i.e., missing data). Depending on the intent of the user who posted the content, it could be left out intentionally or unintentionally.
With every content uploaded to the internet, there are different ways that users could interact with them. From reposting the content in their personal web domains (such as webpage, social media account, creation of new thread in a forum), comment on the original posts, like or dislike the posts, private messaging the user who posted the content, googling for more details to even informing the actual person in the real-world if the user happens to know the person or even harassment if the individual concerned happens to be a public figure. It seems difficult to predict the probability of whether a new content found in the internet would have an impact in the real-world. However, the relationship between them proves itself to be a complicated one.
So, how does folk theorem come into play here?
The basic idea of folk theorem is a phenomenon where individuals stick to certain social norms (or shared values) there are accepted by the society in fear of being excluded or punished by the society from deviating from these norms. It’s usually self-enforced by the individuals of the society. These social norms usually are in place to promote certain desired behaviours of all individuals within the society as deviations from the social norms are usually seen as “costs” or “problems” by members of their society.
Why should we then promote certain behaviours over the others? It’s probably because we want to achieve certain goals in order for the society to function effectively. That could range from safety, justice, equality, happiness, prosperity etc. The goals vary among societies but it is possible for certain baseline in place (which is usually correlated to the basic needs of human beings).
Social norms are self-regulated by individual with or without governance from law and regulation. In fact, there laws and regulations are often introduced to regulate behaviours of entities when neither self-interest or social norms promote the desired behaviours. Some examples of social norms are etiquette (i.e., greetings, manners), way of speech, dress code, respect, shared values (right versus wrong) and taboo.
How do we know or learn about the social norms of our society? It’s usually through formal education, interactions with the various entities of the society and learned experiences. Before we are conscious about it, it seems like we just “know” about how we should behave in different occasions. Yet, it’s difficult to find explicit representation of what social norms are. They could even change over time. It is expected that responsible individuals of society be aware of them, but the means toward getting such information remains vague (parents, education, religion or societal responsibility to educate).
Despite that, deviation from social norms are costly irregardless whether the deviation is intentional or unintentionally. Punishments could range from an exclusion from the society (e.g., benefits that members of the society enjoy if they conform with the social norms), criticism from circles of connections and reputational consequences.
The real danger of social norm is when they encourage behaviours that could be consistently damaging to certain groups of individuals (usually the “weaker” groups). It can be difficult to change or protect these individuals as it often means a need to deviate from the social norms that results in “punishment”. For rational individuals, this serves to discourage them from protecting and standing up for these individuals.
Normally, the reinforcement effects of social norms were limited to geographical locations, personal circles of connections, and formal work or education environments. However, that was before the internet and social media came into play.
Nowadays, strangers (humans or bots) could judge behaviours of others through viral content that are circulating across the internet and social media. Citizen journalism are on the rise. News are not only transmitted via traditional media, new media and communication platforms such as WhatsApp, TikTok, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Youtube, are involved in the spread of viral news (that’s often controversial in nature). Most of the time, the viral content would force a response from the concerned individual or organisation to clarify the incident and hope for some form of reconciliation. The alternative is to remain silent and hope for the incident to pass with time.
The concern here is for every reported incident, there are multiple perspectives to consider. Similar to the reason why court hearings are needed for incident that may be deemed to violate the law and regulation. For regular incident that seems to violate the social norms, there could be multiple layers of complexity to it. Some considerations include:
- Context of the incident (details of what happened before and after or even entities related to the incident that were not captured in the uploaded content)
- Social and cultural norms and beliefs and its historical origins
- Background of the individuals/organisations
- Conditions of the individuals/organisations at the time of the incident
- Reasonableness of the actions given the trigger
- Perceived threats during the time of the incident
- and more…
“How can one be able to judge with the limited information that one sees online?” is a recurring question that I have asked myself again and again whenever someone shares their opinions about a viral incident with me. Sometimes I would bring up certain aspects of the incident that we may not have the information on but it seems that people tend to be driven by what they believe to be right or wrong instead of being overly concerned about what we don’t know.
Another important question would be how to differentiate between the content posted by humans versus bots over the internet and social media.
Is this really a problem with the technology (e.g., the design of social media)? Or is this just an issue that long exists in the society and technology just magnifies the consequences and impact of such an issue?