Does Social Media Accelerate the Spread of Dangerous Ideas?

Is the social web becoming a dangerous platform for contagious, destructive ideas? As social media usage grows and becomes a hive mind of collective consciousness, it enables a number of positive things to happen, but it also presents a grave danger in the form of dangerous memes.

Dan Dennet gave a great TED talk that I’ve mentioned before where he explores dangerous memes. He defines these as parasitic ideas that subordinate genetic interests, in that they can flourish and spread even when they cause harm to the people who contract them. Examples of these are “ideas to die for” like communism, capitalism, religion, fascism and contagious suicide.

Memes are ideas that act as viruses and spread from person to person. In biological infection extreme dense populations often form worst breeding grounds. Many of history’s deadliest outbreaks started in the extremely dense populations of Asia. Cholera started in Bengal and spread across India in the early eighteen hundreds. The black death is widely believed to have begun in central Asia and the third bubonic plague pandemic began in the Yunnan province of China in 1855

If memes are idea viruses, population density can be compared to technologies that bring minds closer together. Social media not only does this, but it also increases the reach available to a single infected person and the frequency of contact that other minds have with new ideas.

The old, industrial media regime had several buffering factors that hindered the spread of contagious ideas. The gatekeepers of broadcast media companies often did extensive fact checking on new stories. The speed and frequency of idea transmission under the old media was also much less than that presented by social media.

We’ve already begun to see the beginnings of dangerous meme outbreaks in social media. Many are relatively benign like the celebrity death hoaxes of stars like Tila Tequila, Britney Spears and Zach Braff. We’ve all seen examples of incorrect “facts” spreading across Twitter at lightening speed through ReTweets and stock prices have felt the pain of a rumor posted to a social site.

More sinister variations on this theme have also begun to emerge including a suspected “web-based Suicide Cults” in England and Japan, a “flash mob riot” in Philadelphia, online gang recruitment, and racist and neo-Nazi social networking. The giant Unification Church “cult” also has strong presences on Facebook and Youtube.

These phenomenon are likely only the tip of the iceberg. How long will it be before a dangerous cult, racist faction or mass-panic inducing hoax emerges that has been specifically designed for social media contagiousness?