Social media platforms do not care about what is good, true, or beautiful–all they care about is engagement. They want to curate content that is perfectly tailored to our own tastes so that we will spend as much time as possible on their platform. When you hop on Instagram or Facebook, you aren’t seeing the world “as it is,” you are seeing the world as these platforms have designed it to be. Are you a conservative? Your timeline is going to look dramatically different than that of a liberal’s. Why? Certainly it has some to do with different friend groups and different interests. But that isn’t the only, or even the main reason.
These platforms possess complex algorithms and artificial intelligences who are monitoring your every move on the internet, creating a remarkably accurate profile of your likes, interests, habits, addictions, and patterns of usage. Facebook knows precisely what kind of content it needs to put into your feed, even when to give you notifications, that will make you engage with and keep you on the platform longer and longer (because the longer you are on there, the more ad revenue they make). So, it is going to selectively choose posts to fill your feed that have the highest likelihood of your engagement. And what kind of content typically has the highest form of engagement?
Attraction By Division
Facebook has learned learned that news stories and posts that illicit negative emotions (fear, anxiety, outrage), despite leading to divisiveness and social unrest, have a much higher percentage of keeping users attention and engagement. So, its algorithm programs your feed to be filled with more and more outrageous, emotionally jarring content, which in turn leads you to look at people you disagree with more and more disdain. “Our algorithms exploit the human brain’s attraction to divisiveness,” read a slide from a 2018 presentation. “If left unchecked,” it warned, Facebook would feed users “more and more divisive content in an effort to gain user attention & increase time on the platform.” (source)
It doesn’t even matter–and this is key—if the post is true or not. A recent MIT study found that fake news spreads six times faster on Twitter, and falsehoods are likely to be retweeted 70% more than truth. Why? Because, of course, the truth is often boring, or contradicts the narrative we would like to be true. But, if you can “bend” the facts to fit your preferred worldview, then you can create something very attractive.
The problem is that our alienation from those we disagree with and our increased tribalism is driving us further and further into falsehoods, because we want to believe the worst about our enemies. And, Social Media has become the perfect handmaiden for the task, both creating and exacerbating the problem. So, our country has done nothing but become radically more polarized. (See Christopher Bail’s Breaking Out of the Social Media Prism)
Remember, the algorithms powering TikTok, Facebook, Instagram, whatever, are not driven by values. The machine-learning systems do not have a conscience that is troubled by the fact that it keeps giving you misinformation. Their only directive is to keep you coming back to the platform, no matter what. And the wealthiest, smartest people in the world with the most powerful supercomputers in the world are doing everything they can to make sure that happens, that they give you what you want and keep you on their platform.
What Can You Do About It
- There is a recent documentary that has received much (deserved) fanfare, The Social Dilemma, that exposes the danger of the kind of echo chambers that Social Media creates. You should watch it, right now.
- Be a little more skeptical of social media giving you an accurate picture of what the world is really like. If you, for example, watch a video on Youtube of someone criticizing a politician, then pretty soon the algorithms at Youtube will recommend another video of someone else criticizing that politician. Eventually, you will think, “Wow! Everybody hates this politician!” Maybe. Or maybe Youtube is just doing exactly what its algorithm is telling it to do–curate content based on its users preferences. Just because something is all over your social media feed doesn’t mean it is an accurate representation of what everyone in our country believes.
- Limit the amount of time you spend on social media. There are good things you can do on social media, but there are many dangerous side effects. Consider erasing social media from your life. If not, then work hard to severely limit it. View social media more like a jungle you have to venture into from time to time and less like a hot tub to soak in. Admit to yourself and to others if you have an addiction to it–remember, these platforms are specifically designed to be addictive.
- Broaden your horizons. Read publications from various perspectives–and not only for the purpose of finding something ridiculous to critique. Don’t assume that your favorite talking head is an impartial pillar of truth, untouched by their own biases.
- Use a hermeneutic of charity, not suspicion. In other words, assume the best about someone else’s intention, don’t actively look to interpret things in as negative of a light as possible just because you don’t ideologically agree with them. A good test: you do not really understand someone, and therefore cannot respond to them, until you can restate their argument back to them in such a way that they would agree that your summary is an accurate description of their position. If you can’t do that, can’t understand your “opponent”, then it shows that you don’t actually care about the problem, you just care about winning.
- Avoid people who are sensationalists. Social media stars who rely on doomsday, apocalyptic kind of hyperbole (ALL CAPS), preying on your emotions of fear, anxiety, outrage, should be ignored.
- Fight for nuance. Actively resist the idea that there are only two positions to have in America (right or left) and that everyone on one side is all the same. Most of the political problems in America are very complicated and require a nuanced approach. Nuance will not give you any zingers or awesome put-downs on Twitter, but it is what is needed for our country to actually move forward. Just because you lean one way more than the other doesn’t mean that you embrace everything that the extremes of each side hold to.
- Develop real-life relationships with people you disagree with. Unless Social Media has totally devoured you, you will treat people in person you disagree with far, far differently than you do online. Their views won’t seem as ridiculous. You may still disagree, but it will be harder for you to think of the other person like an orc.
- Be gracious. Your grandma posting quasi-racist things on Facebook and your cousin on the East coast trying to defend why its justifiable for rioters to burn down businesses are, ironically, both likely victims of the same polarizing forces. Be a model of kindness, equanimity, and cool-headedness. When you engage in “debate” online, do so with great caution and thought, and do so rarely.