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How digital's defining culture

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Emails, social media, instant messaging, memes – communication is evolving at lightning speed.

But what’s the human fallout from this massive spread of digital media? Is online influence more powerful than previous pecking orders? Does digital media up the dial on popularity and celebrity influence? What makes fake news go viral?

A new book out this week tackles these questions from the standpoint of cultural evolution.

“For digital media to succeed, like for most technologies, it has to tap into our psychology,” said writer Dr Alberto Acerbi.

“We are a species that heavily relies on communication, social interactions and learning from others, and the spread of online media is the most recent development in the technologies that support these activities”.

“When printed books started to diffuse” said Dr Acerbi, “intellectuals complained the volume of information would make it impossible to organise knowledge. But innovations were introduced: indexes, catalogues of books, and taking notes while reading. Today we may be in a similar situation, where our culture is adapting to the changes created by digital, online media.”

Alberto Acerbi

Cultural Evolution in the Digital Age covers the cultural sticking power of fake news, influence and the fact that everything’s available cheaply online. Dr Acerbi, who lectures in psychology at Brunel University London, delves into social media such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube. He examines algorithms built to keep people hooked and argues fake news doesn’t spread more than truth.

“Some worries about the dangers of our online activities seem to be misplaced. I propose replacing the image of gullible individuals with one of wary learners,” said Dr Acerbi.

“Online propaganda – think Cambridge Analytica and Russian bots – is unlikely, from what we know, to have substantial effects. Misinformation, fake news and the like are not spreading more than true information online, and echo chambers might be stronger offline than online.

“It is useful to focus on the opportunities and on the real challenges, such as the fact that information is not equally distributed among people, or that we should know more about the working of the algorithms that control the information we see online.”

Cultural Evolution in the Digital Age, by Alberto Acerbi, is published by Oxford University Press on 3 December 2019, available to order for £29.99.

Reported by:

Hayley Jarvis, Media Relations
+44 (0)1895 268176
hayley.jarvis@brunel.ac.uk