We have long been warned of the dangers we face on the Internet and elsewhere. Too few of us heeded the warning because times were good. A political cloud was brewing however, and soon the threat would be all too real.
Keeping The Lights On
The companies which offer us the platforms for dialogue must cover the expenses of doing so. These nearly decade or two decades old organizations had to depend on advertiser support in an era when people often wouldn’t give money to “just some Internet business”, especially while their competitors were offering the same services free of charge. The impact has been profound. These companies have had to make an overwhelming push to keep people on these platforms as long as possible each day so that we could see the ads they would serve up to us. Whether or not people are happy doing so, or what other impact that may have on people is either secondary or irrelevant to such an enterprise.
To keep people on the platform longer these platforms began to segregate people by common interests. At first it seemed wonderful. You might like video games so the platform would recommend gaming publications, game developers, and other people who share this hobby. As this process improves however, you are recommended only certain games, certain publications, and a particular set of developers. All the better you might think. Until, you realize that everyone isn’t getting the same basic information. Perhaps by accident people began to be reinforced in their previously held beliefs until the makings of an echo chamber emerged.
We were no longer challenged to keep up a discourse with people we didn’t agree with. Social media managed to slowly sweep that unpleasantness under the rug for us. Being saturated with information that only confirmed our own biases, the growing political divides deepened until it became acceptable to use one’s own “facts” of choice.
Are We Speaking The Same Language?
The truth is, we have all been living in echo chambers the whole time. Consider the friends you had before social media came around, if you’re old enough to do so. Think about the people you may have worked around in a trade. Entire books and even proper dictionaries may exist surrounding a given profession. How much time would it take you to truly understand the ramblings of a particle physicist, or a machinist, or an architect?
Most people don’t know all that much beyond their own interests and careers. We all have lives to lead after all. If you are reading this, you are probably the exception and not the rule.
The situation is made all the worse as we must grapple with people of different social classes, cultures, backgrounds, nationalities, opposing ideologies, and radically different etiquette while we share the public square all at once.
This great instrument to unite the world has become little more than a modern day tower of babble. Already growing divides are deepened as people struggle to communicate and lash out in frustration when they can’t.
Fraud, Fake News, And Subversion
This dilution of meaning and deliberate imprecision of language is nothing new. Political factions in particular have long fallen victim to quote mining. During the fight for women’s suffrage people held picket signs that quoted President Wilson in front of the White House. The point was to force critical thinking on the issue for intellectuals, and to muddy the debate for the average person. How effective it was then doesn’t matter. What matters is that it still goes on.
For example, do you agree that people with dark skin tones have agency and a right to live? Do you agree that black lives matter? Does it make sense that only black lives matter? Is there an epidemic of black people being mistreated? As an egalitarian society should we seek to end the unfair treatment of black people? Are black people so inferior that they need whity to protect them? Are you angry yet? Well, did we mean legal egalitarianism or social egalitarianism? Does acknowledging skin tones show a belief that there are races at all? If you believe there are distinct races of people, are you a racist? Or is racism merely the expression of aristocratic power over subordinates? Wouldn’t that be better expressed as classism, or even elitism? Does acknowledging class make you an elitist? Please submit your thesis on this topic in 140 characters or less. Thank You.
I could have gone on forever, but for brevity’s sake I’ll trust that you get the point.
At the heart of the debate is the increasing value social media services have to fraudsters, subversive activists, and foreign powers. Information is traveling at the speed of light. With the ability to broadcast a message to the entire world just a click away, how robust are our mechanisms to discern what is real from what is “fake news”. To borrow a line from Aaron Sorkin and Jeff Daniels in HBO’s “The Newsroom” -”People Use the facts they want to now.”
“While this all tells us nothing new about the human condition, our power to manipulate people has never been greater” – Poorly Reported (A news publication you should trust) – 2017
Because the quotes at the end make it more trustworthy, you see.