Philosopher’s thumbs-down to social media ‘likes’ gets award thumbs-up from Royal Institute

The Royal Institute of Philosophy has awarded (jointly) its 2021 essay prize to a University of Cambridge researcher for the first philosophical analysis of ‘liking’ on social media. The essay, which focuses on Facebook, warns that ‘likes’ encourage communicative laziness while ‘like tallies’ fuel fake news, ‘gamify sociality’ and play to our psychological weaknesses.

‘Please Like This Paper’, published today (12 May 2021) in the Institute’s journal Philosophy, argues that while ‘like’ functions help social media users feel they are being heard, they might actually be making us worse listeners/readers. It also suggests that ‘likes’ and ‘like tallies’, in particular, play a central role in fostering political polarisation.

The essay’s author, Dr Lucy McDonald, a Junior Research Fellow in Philosophy at St John’s College, Cambridge, says of liking: “It is a form of pseudo-engagement which absolves us of the guilt of not responding to others’ posts but creates the bare minimum of human connection.”

Contrary to some recent legal judgements, McDonald argues that liking defamatory content “should not necessarily count as endorsement of that content.” An active social media user herself, McDonald accepts that ‘like’ tallies: “give us information we previously lacked, but this information seems to have had a number of corrosive effects on internet discourse. These effects seem worrying enough to offset any particular benefits ‘like’ data may offer … there may be some things we are better off not knowing.”

McDonald argues that “we should not think of accrued likes as a reliable measure of the esteem in which a person is held.” Instead, “the ‘like’ tally both institutes and measures a digital form of what the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu called ‘social capital’, or “the product of accumulated social labour”. ‘Like’ tallies have, McDonald points out, “made social capital both more visible and more measurable online” with a number of harmful effects.

“If our audience has thousands of posts to sift through, we need to say something dramatic to get their (and the algorithms’) attention. Our desire for engagement with others, and the social capital that comes with it, can make us care less about whether the claims we make and share online are true, as well as whether the content we share has been deliberately designed by others to trigger our biases and vulnerabilities, or to serve some nefarious political goal. This makes social media users more vulnerable to manipulation and can lead to the dissemination of harmful ideologies.

“This also hampers meaningful and productive political deliberation online. If we are not interested in getting at the truth, but only in getting ‘likes’, and if we know that others take this approach, too, we will not be interested in exchanging information, reasons, and arguments with one another, but rather with fighting it out for the most exciting online content.

“In its early days, the internet was heralded for its potential to improve democracy. Many thought the internet could bring about what Jürgen Habermas calls the ‘ideal speech situation’. But the ‘like’ function has revitalised the age-old worry that vivid rhetoric and emotional appeals will win out over rational deliberation in democracies. It has done this by quantifying social capital and making it ever-present in online communication, thereby making demagoguery a more salient and tempting prospect than ever before.

“The ‘like’ function plays an instrumental role in fostering political polarisation because it reminds us constantly of our online social capital, and it strengthens the cognitive and social incentives for producing content that accrues many ‘likes’ – many will therefore adjust their circles (consciously or subconsciously) in order to guarantee a steady stream of ‘likes’.”

McDonald welcomes some social media users taking active steps to reduce the impact of ‘like’ tallies by installing extensions like the Facebook Demetricator, which hides all metrics, and some media platforms experimenting with removing tallies from users’ newsfeeds “even if they risk dramatically disrupting the distribution and measurement of online social capital.”

McDonald proposes that ‘likes’ are best theorised as an “essentially phatic act”, as characterised by the anthropologist Bronisław Malinowski in the 1920s, because we use them to build social bonds and bring people together. In this sense, ‘likes’ are similar to gestures like smiles or nods.

Many people, McDonald observes, ‘like’ friends’ posts “routinely and out of a sense of obligation, without really reading or engaging with them. “We expect our friends to listen to us, not to ignore us, and so ‘liking’ posts helps reassure people that they have an audience, which is still listening and engaged.”

McDonald points out that despite how widespread social media use is, this behaviour is rarely discussed in contemporary philosophy of language, which “still tends to focus on face-to-face, one-on-one spoken interaction.” She also argues that ‘likes’ “transmit many different kinds of information; their ‘content’ is not stable, and they have no recognisable, conventional ‘meaning’.”

“This tiny act could seem inconsequential or frivolous. After all, to ‘like’ a post is simply to press a button. Yet it is of huge social significance. With ‘likes’ come considerable power.”

Philosophy journal’s editors Professor Maria Alvarez and Professor Bill Brewer said: “The essay is striking for its successful combination of philosophical investigation and rich and varied empirical detail.”

The Royal Institute of Philosophy‘s 2021 essay prize was jointly awarded to Nikhil Venkatesh (UCL) for ‘Surveillance Capitalism: a Marx-inspired Account’.