How to be media savvy? Sample ideas you disagree with, and be duly skeptical of celebrity journalists.
When PR strategist Matthew Hiltzik visited our video studio, he framed the world as a marketplace of ideas, and the US as a fortunate country whose citizens have a multitude of voices and perspectives—both traditional and revolutionary—to learn from. So are we exercising that luxury, or are we staying loyal to one or two key news sources that comfortably align with our worldview, even our self-identity. What is the cost of that? We may be limiting our own education and cementing arguments instead of working toward resolutions. Hiltzik suggests that there are opportunities and benefits to listening to a wide variety of news sources, even ones that present ideas you may not be accustomed to, and that doing so could help bridge the divides in modern America: "The more understanding you have of your neighbor the more you have the ability to find common interests," he says. If the world is a marketplace of ideas, buy into them carefully, Hiltzik says, but sample them broadly and skeptically, especially in an era of celebrity journalism and see-sawing journalistic standards.
Despite our romanticized vision of social media as a global town square overflowing with diversity, the reality is that each user’s experience is hyper-filtered.
Are you living a segregated digital life? If you're on major social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter, the answer is probably yes.
A new report from the MIT Media Lab’s Electome project shows just how segregated we have become on platforms like Twitter. Utilizing the complete data set from Twitter, the report illustrates the clustering nature of both Clinton and Trump supporters -- with Trump supporters being more isolated from a diverse set of opinions. While no definitive conclusions were drawn as to why Clinton and Trump supporters tended to form distinct clusters, the impact of the clustering is more clear -- the user’s information flow is altered towards less diversity of opinions. We are digitally segregated.
There may be many reasons why we either are, or choose to be, segregated on Twitter. Our ability to be connected to diverse perspectives doesn’t mean we will be exposed to diverse opinions. Speaking to VICE News about the report, MIT Media Lab data journalist John West, who worked on the study, stated that, “All of this paints a bleak picture of online political discourse. It is one balkanized by ideology and issue-interest, with little potential for information flow between the online cocoons.”
How can we understand other people when we are not interacting with other people? Social media, as we have been told, was supposed to bring us together not create online cocoons.
In 2013, former Twitter CEO Dick Costolo waxed poetic to the Brookings Institution about Twitter as a global town square. Costolo set up an analogy with the Greek Agora. “You came and talked about what was going on in your part of the village, and I came and talked about what was going on in mine, and the politician was there, and we listened to the issues of the day, and a musician was there and a preacher was there, etcetera, and it was multidirectional and it was unfiltered, and it was inside out, meaning the news was coming from the people it was happening to, not some observer.”
Giving an optimistic gloss of social media’s ability to eliminate time and distance, Costolo stated that, “along comes a service like Twitter that has the elimination of time and distance built into it, but also brings back all those capabilities of the Agora. It’s inside out again, it’s coming from the participants.”
Here is the problem: the platforms we utilize for our modern day Agora have shareholders. We are expecting a public town square, but experiencing a publicly traded company. In a town square, you are walking into an environment. On social media, an environment is created for you. The business model for major social media companies, which is based on data monetization and ads instead of a monthly fee, may run counter to your own desire for diverse opinions.
“Ad-based businesses distort our online interactions,” wrote tech sociologist Zeynep Tufekci in her New York Times op-ed “Mark Zuckerberg, Let Me Pay for Facebook.” “People flock to Internet platforms because they help us connect with one another or the world’s bounty of information — a crucial, valuable function. Yet ad-based financing means that the companies have an interest in manipulating our attention on behalf of advertisers, instead of letting us connect as we wish. Many users think their feed shows everything that their friends post. It doesn’t.”
Our potential exposure to diversity doesn’t equate to actual exposure to diversity.
This was the experience of Eli Pariser, whose 2011 TED talk “Beware online filter bubbles” seems extremely prescient. “I'm progressive, politically… but I've always gone out of my way to meet conservatives. I like hearing what they're thinking about; I like seeing what they link to; I like learning a thing or two. And so I was surprised when I noticed one day that the conservatives had disappeared from my Facebook feed. And what it turned out was going on was that Facebook was looking at which links I clicked on, and it was noticing that, actually, I was clicking more on my liberal friends' links than on my conservative friends' links. And without consulting me about it, it had edited them out. They disappeared.”
There is a wide gulf between the potential for social media platforms to expose us to diverse opinions, and the reality and running of publicly traded companies. What if showing you diverse opinions would be bad for business?
Instead of trying to change social media companies towards the town square ideal, we need to come to terms that we are not in a public space. Social media is not a town square, and it never will be.
Facebook can flip your digital identity on and off at the switch; that is way too much power for any corporation to have, says Oliver Luckett — and we handed it to them.
It’s likely that most of us signed up to Facebook before we truly knew how powerful it was or would become. Many of us were too young, or inexperienced in the digital world, to realize that, at the end of the day, we were and are the product Facebook is really selling. We are sorted, packaged and prompted to act (by giving likes, clicking ads, and sharing emotional states and information) so that a supremely valuable commodity – our attention – can be more profitably sold to advertisers. It’s how we end up in echo chambers of like-minded people, and it’s this illusion of agreeability that started to tear in the wake of the election result.
We’re responsible for handing over our data to Facebook, there’s no question about that, but now that users are becoming more informed of data harvesting and algorithmic practices – by outside sources, not by Facebook itself, notes technology entrepreneur Oliver Luckett – we should seriously give thought to building our digital identities independently of Facebook.
Luckett takes issue with Facebook for its lack of transparency and its monopoly on power. Mark Zuckerberg is the most powerful editor-in-chief in the world, and that terrifies Luckett. From his own personal experience, Luckett tells a story of how his account was instantly shut down when he sent an image from a medical textbook to a friend over Facebook messenger. He received a notification that he was under review, and was denied access to his account until further notice. With that, he also lost access to websites and apps that were connected to his Facebook profile – Instagram, Soundcloud, Spotify. Imagine losing access to sites and resources you really depend on. "Someone can just be erased from a system without any recourse… That's too much power," Luckett says.
More worrying than switching off your online identity network is the lack of transparency in Facebook’s algorithms and social experiments. Luckett explains these in depth in the video, illuminating how little we know about the way Facebook turns algorithmic dials up and down without our knowledge (but we did press ‘I Agree’ on the T&Cs;, so yes, that's on us), affecting who and what we see. This is particularly significant for businesses who have invested money in audience visibility through Facebook – 44% of the U.S. population accesses news on the social platform, according to a 2016 study by the Pew Research Center and the Knight Foundation. People and businesses are becoming heavily dependent on Facebook and powerless to its decisions.
The safeguard is remembering that Facebook is a choice; carve out your identity and your business so that if Facebook were pulled out from under your feet, it wouldn’t devastate you or your livelihood. Enjoy it for the amazing service that it is, but be wary and informed of how it works beneath the interface.
Oliver Luckett and Michael J. Casey's book is The Social Organism: A Radical Understanding of Social Media to Transform Your Business and Life.