So­cial me­dia hurt­ing Amer­ica and we need to do some­thing about it

Lodi News-Sentinel - - OPINION -

By now, we know that so­cial me­dia is more likely to bring out the worst in us than the best in us. Or, more ac­cu­rately, it is likely to bring out the worst of us, while the silent many just groan and be­come more dispir­ited at the state of things.

The ques­tion that we need to ask our­selves this year, though, is whether so­cial me­dia is chang­ing us as a so­ci­ety and hurt­ing us as a peo­ple. The ev­i­dence ap­pears in­creas­ingly plain that it is. Our worry is that, as Amer­i­cans, we are in­creas­ingly un­will­ing to con­sider ideas that are con­trary to our own bi­ases and be­liefs, that we are that much more ea­ger to tune them out or shout them down or that we just don’t en­counter them at all in our streams of in­for­ma­tion.

These days, peo­ple who dis­agree aren’t just our neigh­bors with dif­fer­ent points of view. They are our po­lit­i­cal en­e­mies, called out as such over and over not only in the gut­ter stream of cable “news” and in­ter­net com­ments, but also more fre­quently in so­cial me­dia posts.

On an ed­i­to­rial board like ours that uses as its guide­posts that peo­ple and hu­man lib­erty mat­ter, this sense of sepa­ra­tion rings starkly be­cause it comes from both di­rec­tions. On any given day, we are called a shill for the left or the right. That sort of feed­back doesn’t bother us much. News­pa­per ed­i­to­rial boards are used to tak­ing knocks be­cause we of­ten present a broad range of opin­ions and ar­gu­ments. What’s con­cern­ing, though, is the in­creas­ing sense that many Amer­i­cans don’t or won’t hear other per­spec­tives.

Some of us are be­com­ing like chil­dren who will eat only what we like at ev­ery meal. Try to sneak in a veg­etable and a tantrum en­sues. The re­ac­tions are child­ish be­cause they don’t an­swer ar­gu­ment with ar­gu­ment or rea­son with rea­son. They are emo­tional, not log­i­cal, in their re­sponses to things with which they dis­agree. So many peo­ple on­line are of­ten so assured of the self-ev­i­dent right­eous­ness of their per­spec­tives that they don’t bother to sup­port them with ar­gu­ments or coun­ter­ar­gu­ments. They just go right to the ad hominem at­tacks and the de­hu­man­iz­ing.

So­cial me­dia doesn’t just ex­ac­er­bate this prob­lem, it also feeds on it. Al­go­rithms are set to en­sure a steady diet of con­fir­ma­tion bias and emo­tional ma­nip­u­la­tion with ev­ery click of the mouse.

In De­cem­ber, the Pew Re­search Cen­ter re­ported that so­cial me­dia have sur­passed news­pa­pers as a source of news for Amer­i­cans. Twenty per­cent of Amer­i­cans now cite so­cial me­dia as a fre­quent news source. It’s easy to lament this as a news­pa­per. But the more im­por­tant ques­tion is whether we should lament it as Amer­i­cans. Take an hon­est look at the qual­ity of in­for­ma­tion and the qual­ity of the na­tional dis­course and the an­swer seems clear that we should not con­tinue down this path.

We know that so­cial me­dia has be­come the pre­ferred plat­form au­toc­ra­cies use to con­trol their pop­u­laces and un­der­mine democ­racy. It’s not just Rus­sia. It’s hap­pen­ing all over the world. And we know that even af­ter the so­cial me­dia gi­ant Face­book be­came aware that it was be­ing used in such a man­ner, it was slow to re­act, even as its ma­chine-learn­ing al­go­rithms con­tin­ued to serve peo­ple not the best in­for­ma­tion, but rather the in­for­ma­tion most likely to keep them on Face­book, click­ing one more time, watch­ing one more ad.

Twit­ter, mean­while, is a land of bots and trolls that even the most care­fully cu­rated feed will strug­gle to keep out and where a 280char­ac­ter limit prom­ises not rea­son and depth, but rather ap­peals to shal­low emo­tion.

By now, we know the so­cial me­dia gi­ants are not go­ing to change. Their rev­enue model is too tied to keep­ing us on­line, col­lect­ing our per­sonal data and pref­er­ences and then sell­ing them to all com­ers — of­ten with­out con­sent.

Congress needs to ad­dress so­cial me­dia companies’ po­si­tion as the ma­jor pub­lish­ers of our age. It also needs to ad­dress how in­ter­net companies use and sell per­sonal data. Our sense of pol­i­tics is that if change is to come, it has to bub­ble up from the peo­ple. The politi­cians in Washington will spend their time watch­ing the polls or be­ing pulled aside by lob­by­ists for the in­ter­net gi­ants.

It will be up to us as Amer­i­cans to ask hard ques­tions about who we are and how we want to re­late to one an­other. In 2019, we have to be will­ing to treat one an­other on­line as neigh­bors and fel­low cit­i­zens. We have to be will­ing to hear one an­other out and to re­spond not from our gut but from our minds –– and then sup­port lead­ers who em­u­late such be­hav­ior. We also need to be will­ing to hold so­cial me­dia ac­count­able for the ma­te­rial it spreads, for how it treats our per­sonal data as a com­mod­ity and for the di­vi­sion it so of­ten sows among us. That can mean speak­ing up about it, or re­duc­ing the fre­quency we use it or say­ing good­bye to cer­tain sites al­to­gether in hopes that more eth­i­cal companies will re­place them.

The old say­ing “we are what we eat” ap­plies here. We are what we con­sume. And with so­cial me­dia, that con­sump­tion is too of­ten unhealthy. Let’s stop this year and do some­thing about it.

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