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Opinion psychology

The Politics of Social Media

 

smartphone addiction
Smartphone addiction

Evaluating Social Media

We are in the age of technology and social media apps, and are constantly being exposed to new ways of wasting time. A more interconnected world is rewarding –  it keeps us mentally active and socially involved. There are obvious benefits, but there are consequences. The cliched criticism is that social media has taken the place of real-life social encounters that are much richer and rewarding – our encounters with people have become less personal.

Our smartphone contains algorithms that can suggest words for us to use next – and they are often more effective than what we had in mind. There is no need to be original if you don’t want to. In fact, you can outsource “thinking” to your smartphone. You are interacting with your friend on the other side, but the two of you are mediated and slightly nudged by technology. It is likely that this nudge will increase in magnitude with time.

It’s not obvious why that would be a bad thing, unless you feel reluctant to fulfill the dystopic vision that George Orwell laid out in 1984. In it, he talks about a new language called “New Speak”, and the idea was that every now and then, the government would publish a new dictionary, and it would remove ineffective words from it. Instead, it would have simpler words. Why have two words like “thin” and “slim” when you can just have one? The books themselves would progressively get smaller with time, and citizens would, instead of going through the trouble of thinking about the subtle difference between two similar words, will just use the simpler alternative. With time, language would become more simplified, and people would become more efficient.

With Social Media, we expend less effort communicating with one individual, but because we have access to many individuals simultaneously, we can spend more time communicating with multiple individuals. But this instant access to many more people will result in a timeless trade-off; quality for quantity. We will type in more words, but less meaningful ones. We will have more conversations, but less intimate conversations.

On the good end of the trade-off, social media has saved us countless hours of wasted time that would have been spent commuting. It has made our lives more convenient, and allows us to spend more time on things we enjoy doing.

We once lived in a world where information flowed in only one direction, where our opinions, for the most part, didn’t matter unless we were an influential member of society with exceptional influence, or were one of the few people who worked in the media industry. Our knowledge about world events were presented to us, and curated by only a few television networks. If, for political reasons, a media publication refused to publish an important news story, then it wouldn’t show up, and there would be nothing we could do about it.

There’s a Radiolab episode, that shows how blurry the line is between a technology company (what Facebook claims to be) and a publication like “The New York Times.” Since Facebook decides which content to keep or remove based on its own guidelines, it is effectively acting like a media publication. In other words, Facebook has become a political voice, with its own biases. However, what Facebook and other platforms such as Youtube and Twitter have accomplished is historic and revolutionary. In the same episode referenced above, a woman who lives in Mexico City was interviewed. She explains how several years ago, there were shootings and explosions happening in her city, but the local news would only cover economic and sports news, without mentioning what was going on in the streets. But she knew, from videos being posted online every day, that the news was hiding something.

It’s interesting to consider that “fake news” became such a buzzword – with many people worried that social media has allowed access to people who willingly abuse the truth – and consequently, influence the opinions of other gullible people who don’t know any better.

But as the Mexico City story reminds us, the liberal world’s biggest enemy has always been politicized media companies that decide what we should and shouldn’t know. They covered news that got them higher ratings and more viewers, but they didn’t necessarily cover the truth. They didn’t give us an accurate picture of reality. In fact, they often distorted their versions of stories to serve a particular agenda. And this, of course, occurs in both left-wing and right-wing news organizations. No one is exempt from manipulating the truth.

The phenomena of fake news, far from legitimatizing traditional media publishers, has made them largely irrelevant. As sharing information becomes easier, people will choose to access a platform that has an infinite selection to choose from, rather than constrain themselves to one, orchestrated point of view. Of course, a lot of the information on social media doesn’t pertain to reality, and can have large effects in the real-world, such as the 2016 U.S election, but it’s also worth nothing that the trade-off may be worth it, even necessary. Is it more dangerous for a few people to report mostly accurate news all the time, but slightly bend it when it favors their interests, or is it better to decentralize reporting completely, and get the views of millions of people, some of whom are propagating lies?

If democracy works or is rooted to any deep truth at all, we ought to prefer the latter scenario. If the best system we have is to allow the adult population of any liberal democracy to cast its vote, then we are implicitly trusting the judgement of voters. If we do trust their judgement when it comes to their vote, then why don’t we trust their judgement when it comes to who they choose to get their information from?

There is a richness to interacting with people outside our lives inside the screen. Processing physical cues, reading facial expressions, developing a sense of our own and other people’s body language, noticing subtle changes in tone, practicing our conversational skills, thinking out loud, exploring ideas collectively, and cleverly maneuvering through unspoken, conversational rules. But we have resigned ourselves to being first respondents to the whims of a electrical signals instead.

Social media has come with some very unsatisfying results. Many will point to the Arab Spring as an example of how social media mobilized people against each other and wreaked destruction on societies. They will point to how the very nature of social media as anarchic. But despite its vulnerabilities, like democracy, it is the best thing we have. The revolutions that have taken place may take time to redeem themselves, but ultimately, these countries are more free, people are less scared, and a brighter future has become a feint possibility.

“Many forms of Government have been tried, and will be tried in this world of sin and woe. No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed it has been said that democracy is the worst form of Government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.…”

Winston S Churchill

 

"Silence is the best expression of scorn" - G.B. Shaw

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