Sunday, December 17, 2017

Put the social back in social media

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What happens when fake news is exactly what you want to believe? How critical are we when we survey the daily news feeds and tips from friends in social media? Maybe the rise of so-called fake news is the result of our own shortcomings and not simply the fault of corporations, trolls and nebulous foreign powers. Confirmation bias has always been a factor in how we view the world; we have always chosen our friends according to how much we agree with them and we have always chosen news media who reflect our own opinions. Technology magnifies these tendencies and makes it easy for those who want to manipulate public opinion and often the views of a small minority can seem to be the voice of the masses.

I really enjoyed reading an article on this theme in Wired where Miranda Katz interviews Danah BoydThe Fake News Culprit No One Wants to Identify: You. Fake news is a cultural rather than a technological problem and it is a false trail to think that the solution lies solely with the social media corporations (though there is of course a lot they could do to help). We need to realise that our own behaviour is at the root of today's polarised and conflict-ridden society.

And, for the most part, we’re looking for something new to blame, which is why so much of the attention is focused on technology companies instead of politics, news media, or our economic incentives. We need to hold ourselves individually and collectively responsible, but that’s not where people are at.

Much of the communication in social media today is based on a culture of bullying and coercion that is now, possibly more than ever, increasingly acceptable and we're all part of it in some way. The internet was seen by many as an arena to bring us together and foster global understanding but we didn't foresee it being used to do the opposite.

We're not seeing something that is brand new. We're just distraught because hatred, prejudice, and polarization are now extraordinarily visible, and that the people who have power in this moment are not the actors that some of us believe should have power. And, of course, technology mirrors and magnifies the good, bad, and ugly of everyday life. There’s a peculiar contradiction and challenge of what we’ve built [with these platforms]. So many early internet creators hoped to build a decentralized system that would allow anybody to have power. We didn't account for the fact that the class of people who might leverage this strategically may do so for nefarious, adversarial, or destructive purposes.

I would like to see Facebook, Twitter and Instagram revert to being forums for personal communication rather than soapboxes and propaganda channels; putting the social back in social media. Please show me what you had for breakfast or a photo of a beautiful garden rather than links to news that confirm your own beliefs. Stop trying to persuade others to think like you and instead share glimpses of your life, small insights and try to build relationships. Stop blaming and scapegoating and try to find solutions to the problems we face. Polarisation only leads to conflict and that solves nothing.

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