When Good Social Networks Go Bad

Not all social network are healthy. What is the impact of unhealthy social networks?

Harold Jarche has a great blog post about trust and social networks entitled, “when trust is lost.” In this post he points to how social networks in China erupted when Doctor Li Wenliang who had identified the corona virus and was reprimanded by the Chinese government for going public about the virus died from the virus. The government had tried to tamp down the news by not sharing information and silencing whistle-blowers.

But once the news of the virus was out and information began to be shared, the world community rallied and seems to be containing the virus’s spread.

Jarche makes he point that trust is vital for social networks to thrive and when it is present, networked learning increases trust.  I agree with Harold on this.

I think the real lynchpin is in the information allowed into the system and the social validity that information can achieve. Unfortunately, we can see a negative version of that being played out here in America. If you can subvert or at least call into doubt information – say, it was Ukraine, not Russia who tampered with US elections – and you have enough of the social network that will repeat this information as being true, you can subvert the network effect that normally would hone down falsehoods to leave the truth standing free.

Social networks honed down the falsehoods China was building to hide the epidemic, but it’s also clear that it was close to succeeding if it weren’t for Doctor Li’s death. Unfortunately, social networks can give credence to falsehoods and erode trust.

Social networks enable knowledge-sharing but don’t guarantee that the knowledge shared is truthful. Healthy social networks with authentic, service-oriented leaders; that welcome dissent and questioning of current knowledge; and are open to change will tend to weed out falsehoods, build trust in the network and its members, and provide knowledge that can be trusted to the point when other networks may test it and revise it.

But there are social networks whose leaders are self-serving; whose members fail to question “known” knowledge – either out of convenience or by coercion; and are resistant to change what they hold to be true. These networks will seldom issue information that is “true” but with propaganda, diffusion, and bluster to cover the fact that they haven’t vetted this information against all other information. They put on a charade of network behavior that seems to generate truth.

Unhealthy social networks aren’t necessarily negative or nefarious. There are plenty of well meaning groups who leaders who prefer to lead from authority, not with authenticity; who’s members cling to the “truths” they know; who reject any dissent from group norms. These groups too generate erroneous “truths”.

Jarche’s model holds well with the assumption of healthy social networks.  What it doesn’t address is when the system has been corrupted and unhealthy social networks begin to change the equation. The challenge is how can we stem the influence of unhealthy social networks – without trampling on their rights to believe what they believe.


Do you think these regulations will change anything? Will they drive greater support for data collection in learning? Motivate more collaboration between the business units and L&D?

Author: Dave Lee

AGILE LEARNING LEADER Bridging the gap between traditional and emerging methodologies to drive efficiency, performance, and business results while transforming organizational learning.

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