Stephen Smith's Blog

Musings on Machine Learning…

How Social Media Divides Us

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Introduction

Last time, we discussed how Social Media brainwashes us by presenting us false information repeatedly, triggering evolutionary learning mechanisms, to get us to believe patently false claims like the Earth being flat. In this article we’ll look at how Social Media presents only one side of a story, introducing bias and preventing a balanced view of the world. Social Media presents this as a feature, that we can filter to only see what we like, but let’s look at the consequences of this and how this is dividing us, rather than bringing us together.

News in the Olden Days

We used to get our news by reading the newspaper or watching network TV news broadcasts. Generally these organisations were balanced and there was editorial control to largely prevent the publication of blatantly false information. Further, reputable organizations would present both sides of a story and make it clear what was editorial opinion versus a news story. For instance, a newspaper might have both a democratic and a republican leaning editor and the editorial page would present both sides. There would be complaints that the Communist or Fascist parties wouldn’t get any coverage and that their opinions were censored, but generally this wasn’t considered bad and was considered the job of the newspaper.

This meant that people were exposed to both sides of an argument, if they were curious they could read the arguments of the other side of an issue and even if they disagreed, they could see there was logic behind the arguments and that the other side wasn’t just crazy. This meant people could have informed discussions and the level of argument was quite informed.

How Social Media Presents the News

Nowadays, few people read physical newspapers and respected TV news broadcasts have been replaced with highly one-sided 24-hour news channels. Newspapers tried to move to the web and some have quite good websites, but this caused a big drop in advertising revenue and people are very reluctant to pay a subscription fee for their services. Some news organizations have quite good mobile apps, but not many people will bother with these either.

All these news organizations have been forced to provide Social Media feeds to Facebook and Twitter. People then choose which organizations to follow and then will see stories from these sources in their feeds.

Anyone can create a newsfeed page for people to follow, it’s free and it’s easy. Of course Facebook and Twitter will try to get money from you to “promote” your feed, but whether you pay or just do self-promotion is entirely up to you. You can create a professional looking news feed with an authentic sounding name with the goal of promoting your theories on how we are all controlled by alien reptilian overlords. If you have a bit of money, you can pay Facebook to promote this feed and you will show up in people’s suggestions on an equal footing with feeds like the NY Times or Washington Post.

Further, it’s easy to create a news feed and then have an AI bot automate the posting, so you can have quite a busy feed without even doing any work.

To some degree, the claim is that this provides greater freedom, but most of these feeds are designed to scam people out of money, either by donating to fake political campaigns or buying scam merchandise. Facebook and Twitter have started to crackdown on the more violent of these like Qanon and the KKK, but it is easy for these groups to rename and be back in milliseconds.

The 24-hour news channels on TV seem to be morphing into social media feeds, showing only a very narrow set of opinions and being totally dedicated to one side of a story and attacking the other side, whether it’s the right wing Fox News or the left wing MSNBC.

The Algorithms of Information Distortion

Even if you only subscribe to proper news organizations like CNN, the BBC, the NY Times, the CBC, GobalTV, CTV, the Washington Post or the Vancouver Sun, the Social Media algorithms will distort your views. When you check your Facebook or Twitter feed, these companies want you to stay as long as possible and peruse their ads. Their goal isn’t to provide you balanced informed information, it is to keep you scrolling and hopefully clicking on the odd advertisement. If you subscribe to a number of news organizations then each one will likely have posted dozens of stories since you last looked at your feed. This is where the social media algorithms come in.

When you visit Facebook, the algorithm looks at all the stories that have been posted by your friends and pages you follow and then decide which ones it thinks you will be most interested in. Which ones you will look at and which ones might keep you scrolling down your feed a little longer. Social Media will not show you all the stories from a news organization, only a selection. You can see this by looking at what your social media feed shows and then go to the news organization’s website to see all the stories that have been posted. So even if a news organization publishes both sides of a story, your news feed will likely only show stories from the side of the argument that you agree with. This then feeds into what we talked about last time, and just reinforces the neural pathways for this point of view. This makes you very stubborn to ever change your mind and likely consider any other point of view as crazy.

Is There a Solution?

A lot of people suggest deleting your social media account. I wouldn’t do this. I like keeping up-to-date in what my friends and family are up to. I find that part of Social Media is great. I find it questionable getting my news from Social Media. Both Twitter and Facebook give me very one sided views of the world, with the occasional suggestion to follow something very bizarre. I find getting my news from a new website more reliable, both in completeness and in providing a more balanced view. If you are just following an echo chamber of your own prejudices then you aren’t being a free thinker, you are just being brainwashed. Visiting websites and running multiple Apps is considered old fashioned these days, but my impression is that both Twitter and Facebook have failed to provide a decent news feed experience.

Summary

Society has become extremely divided over anything political. In Canada, we aren’t as bad as the USA which is on the verge of a civil war, however, things can easily devolve and we could find ourselves in the same situation. Social Media is the big driver or this divide and it seems unlikely that Social Media will change. News organizations have become subservient to the social media algorithms and are having to become more polarized in order to survive.

The only real solution is for people to battle their Hebbian learning mechanisms and to look at things with more critical thought and logic. The sad part is that those politicians benefiting from this are fighting to remove such classes from the education system to keep the population easily fooled by their nonsense.

Written by smist08

October 16, 2020 at 11:29 am

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