Christian's Chronicles

July| Vol. 22 No. 8.02 | Christian's Chronicles © 2015 – All rights reserved.

Skeptical Media

English: Data from April 2011 Editor Survey th...

Survey that lists Social Media activities (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Nowadays, social media is all the rage for everything marketing and entertainment related. It is often touted as a democratizing force empowering the individual and re-shaping the centralized sources of information and power of the establishment into an egalitarian utopia where everyone has an equal voice, so long as they have a smart phone. Indeed, the so-called Arab Spring was dubbed the ‘Facebook Revolution’ because social media was seen as having such an important role in organizing and uniting the activists who eventually overthrew the regime.

Good arguments can be made to show that the regime was indeed purposely allowing the activity to continue on social media all the while monitoring the exchange of information so as to identify and detain the responsible parties. Their only mistake appears to have been miscalculating the scale at which people would participate in the real, as opposed to the virtual protests. Whether or not these claims have factual basis will purposely be left up to the reader to decipher, for reasons which will become clear later on. However, government monitoring of communication is by now no longer a new topic, and it is not the focus of this post.

Although it is worth discussing that everything you view, type, or interact with in any way online leaves some manner of a ‘digital footprint,’ there is another aspect of social media that is perhaps even more disturbing. To cut to the chase and start with the conclusion, it is the thesis of this post that social media is an enormous engine of confirmation-bias with a dangerous potential for polarization and isolation of viewpoints, as opposed to the commonly held view of being a platform for open exchange of ideas and free dialogue. Moreover, this is not simply a matter of some misuse of the medium (as the case has often been made against television, which, as the argument goes, is bad because of the content viewers choose to watch not the manner of distributing it), but rather, it is built into the framework of the technology itself. I base these claims on the underlying mechanisms that drive social media as a business, and I will then illustrate my points with some well-known phenomena encountered in social media networks.

Social media, in its currently prevalent format, is free to users because it derives revenue from advertisements. It can offer to businesses something far superior to traditional broadcast media: extremely narrowly targeted advertising, right down to the level of marketing at a single individual. By collecting and analyzing data about user’s likes, habits, exchanges, location, and anything and everything else, social media companies can then use this information to predict their users’ behavior and target ads only at those who have the highest potential to make a purchase. This information is valuable. It is so valuable that businesses are paying top dollar for the more efficient, higher conversion rates of such targeted marketing. It has even given rise to secondary markets that deal in buying and selling nothing but user data. This is what drives billion dollar multinational companies like Facebook and Google. And it all depends on associating user behavior with other statistically related information.

An even more powerful additional aspect of social media is the age-old powerful force of peer pressure. Social media ads also point out the likes and preferences of your friends. This in turn motivates you, who after all simply wants to fit in with the crowd, to make similar decisions either as direct purchases, or as indirect ‘lifestyle’ indicators that drive purchasing decisions. It is useless to deny this, everyone is motivated by some form of need to conform, and that is not always a bad thing. We should have recognized social norms, otherwise society itself will fall apart. Social media exploits our instinctual group behaviors to market products via the perceived threat of exclusion from the group. Why else would people buy iPhones?

Few of us think about these aspects of social media, choosing instead to turn a blind eye to what’s happening behind the curtain and eagerly playing into the game with our prolific use of Facebook and its many competitors. Contemplating these things may give one pause, but it is still not the main point of this humble post. Instead, let’s take a look at some hoaxes that have gone viral on social media.

English: Photo of Notre Dame linebacker Manti ...

Manti Te’o (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Many of them seemed believable. Many of us commented, re-Tweeted, and forwarded them. Elan Gale’s airline encounter. (I did not even know who he was until I read that story) Manti Te’o’s girlfriend. The lesbian waitress who didn’t (not) receive a tip. They all have one thing in common: they are fake stories that moved us enough emotionally to share them with our friends.

Bingo. This is the essence of social media.

We are bombarded with information that reinforces our views, as opposed to challenging us to dialogue and debate.

What, hoaxes? No. Stories that move us enough to share with our friends, networks, or anyone else, based on your privacy settings… This is why companies are investing huge sums of money into social media marketing, and why companies with no product of their own to sell, such as Facebook, are raking in millions. And nothing moves us quite like the feeling of righteous indignation. As the stories spread among our circles, we find more and more confirmation not just from our friends, but also from the related content provided by social media itself. In a somewhat slippery-slope, yet illustrative example, consider watching a video of police ruthlessly beating an unarmed man. Related videos on YouTube pop up, showing more police brutality. On the side, an ad appears for mace, and other self-defense products. Now, it seems we truly do live in a police state. But perhaps our perception is limited to what has filtered through the engines of social media. My example is somewhat limited, but the concept is valid.

Famed defense attorney Clarence Darrow was rightfully suspicious of righteous indignation. It allows us to free our animal instincts for violence and rage under license of justice. We get to experience our most base emotions guilt-free, because we are righteous, after all.

Whenever you encounter something online or in any other media that sparks such feelings within you, take pause and see whether there is another side to that story. Whether it is the racially charged shooting of an unarmed victim, the rape of an innocent and subdued female, or any other image that shocks your conscience, do not simply swallow it whole without digesting where the information comes from, who is providing it, in what manner, and why. Things such as what I have described are shocking, but it doesn’t mean that they are facts. Perhaps the reason why we seem to have more and more stories of crazed lone gunmen going on a shooting rampage is because of a trend of isolation and confirmation bias, at least in terms of viewpoints, is entrenched in our society as reflected through social media. We are bombarded with information that reinforces our views, as opposed to challenging us to dialogue and debate.

Every story has at least two sides. Our justice system, in its wisdom and its role as the foundation of democracy, recognizes this. It is why we have an adverserial system. Two sides, with an advocate for each, battle it out in court so as to offer at least the hope of a fair trial before a jury of our peers. This concept is all the more important when interpreting information provided by only one source, without an adversary to test its veracity. You, the reader, has to take on the double duty of testing the information and being an advocate for the opposing view, despite the fact that it is easier to accept any story by whatever authority, especially since 120 of your closest friends ‘like’ it.

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One comment on “Skeptical Media

  1. Pingback: Some guy wrote this | Christian's Chronicles

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This entry was posted on January 14, 2014 by in 3 - Your opinion, The Chronicles and tagged , , , , , , , .