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“Social Media” has destroyed discourse

Hossein Derakshan, an Iranian-Canadian author, media analyst, and performance artist writes in MIT Technology Review:

“Like TV, social media now increasingly entertains us, and even more so than television it amplifies our existing beliefs and habits. It makes us feel more than think, and it comforts more than challenges. The result is a deeply fragmented society, driven by emotions, and radicalized by lack of contact and challenge from outside. This is why Oxford Dictionaries designated “post-truth” as the word of 2016: an adjective “relating to circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than emotional appeals.”

[…]

Traditional television still entails some degree of surprise. What you see on television news is still picked by human curators, and even though it must be entertaining to qualify as worthy of expensive production, it is still likely to challenge some of our opinions (emotions, that is).

Social media, in contrast, uses algorithms to encourage comfort and complaisance, since its entire business model is built upon maximizing the time users spend inside of it. Who would like to hang around in a place where everyone seems to be negative, mean, and disapproving? The outcome is a proliferation of emotions, a radicalization of those emotions, and a fragmented society. This is way more dangerous for the idea of democracy founded on the notion of informed participation.

This means we should write and read more, link more often, and watch less television and fewer videos — and spend less time on Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube.

Our habits and our emotions are killing us and our planet. Let’s resist their lethal appeal.”

An alarming number of people rely *solely* on a Social Media network for news

Note the stats from Pew Research Center for Journalism and Media, that 64% of users surveyed rely on just one source alone of social media for news content—i.e. Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, etc, while 26% would check only two sources, and 10% three or more: A staggeringly concerning trend, given the rampant personalisation of these screen environments and what we know about the functioning and reinforcement of The Filter Bubble. This is a centralisation of power and lack of diversity and compare/contrast that the “old media” perhaps could only dream of…

From The Huffington Post:

“It’s easy to believe you’re getting diverse perspectives when you see stories on Facebook. You’re connected not just to many of your friends, but also to friends of friends, interesting celebrities and publications you “like.”

But Facebook shows you what it thinks you’ll be interested in. The social network pays attention to what you interact with, what your friends share and comment on, and overall reactions to a piece of content, lumping all of these factors into an algorithm that serves you items you’re likely to engage with. It’s a simple matter of business: Facebook wants you coming back, so it wants to show you things you’ll enjoy.”

BBC also reported earlier this year that Social Media networks outstripped television as the news source for young people (emphasis added):

“Of the 18-to-24-year-olds surveyed, 28% cited social media as their main news source, compared with 24% for TV.

The Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism research also suggests 51% of people with online access use social media as a news source. Facebook and other social media outlets have moved beyond being “places of news discovery” to become the place people consume their news, it suggests.

The study found Facebook was the most common source—used by 44% of all those surveyed—to watch, share and comment on news. Next came YouTube on 19%, with Twitter on 10%. Apple News accounted for 4% in the US and 3% in the UK, while messaging app Snapchat was used by just 1% or less in most countries.

According to the survey, consumers are happy to have their news selected by algorithms, with 36% saying they would like news chosen based on what they had read before and 22% happy for their news agenda to be based on what their friends had read. But 30% still wanted the human oversight of editors and other journalists in picking the news agenda and many had fears about algorithms creating news “bubbles” where people only see news from like-minded viewpoints.

Most of those surveyed said they used a smartphone to access news, with the highest levels in Sweden (69%), Korea (66%) and Switzerland (61%), and they were more likely to use social media rather than going directly to a news website or app.

The report also suggests users are noticing the original news brand behind social media content less than half of the time, something that is likely to worry traditional media outlets.”

And to exemplify the issue, these words from Slashdot: “Over the past few months, we have seen how Facebook’s Trending Topics feature is often biased, and moreover, how sometimes fake news slips through its filter.”

“The Washington Post monitored the website for over three weeks and found that Facebook is still struggling to get its algorithm right. In the six weeks since Facebook revamped its Trending system, the site has repeatedly promoted “news” stories that are actually works of fiction. As part of a larger audit of Facebook’s Trending topics, the Intersect logged every news story that trended across four accounts during the workdays from Aug. 31 to Sept. 22. During that time, we uncovered five trending stories that were indisputably fake and three that were profoundly inaccurate. On top of that, we found that news releases, blog posts from sites such as Medium and links to online stores such as iTunes regularly trended.”

UPDATE 9/11/16 — US President Barack Obama criticises Facebook for spreading fake stories: “The way campaigns have unfolded, we just start accepting crazy stuff as normal,” Obama said. “As long as it’s on Facebook, and people can see it, as long as its on social media, people start believing it, and it creates this dust cloud of nonsense.”

Stare Into The Lights My Pretties

How technology disrupted the truth

Coinciding with a continued rise in public cynicism and a legitimate mistrust of mainstream media beholden to systems of power that are discredited, it seems most people turn to social media networks to get their news now. But this seemingly doesn’t fix the problem. Rather than a “democratisation” of the media and/or a mass reclamation of investigative journalism (as technology pundits continuously purport), there’s arguably been the opposite.

Now, with the convergence of closed social media networks that are beholden to nefarious algorithms such as The Filter Bubble and the personalisation of information, as an article in the Guardian explains, “Social media has swallowed the news – threatening the funding of public-interest reporting and ushering in an era when everyone has their own facts. But the consequences go far beyond journalism.”

“Twenty-five years after the first website went online, it is clear that we are living through a period of dizzying transition. For 500 years after Gutenberg, the dominant form of information was the printed page: knowledge was primarily delivered in a fixed format, one that encouraged readers to believe in stable and settled truths.

Now, we are caught in a series of confusing battles between opposing forces: between truth and falsehood, fact and rumour, kindness and cruelty; between the few and the many, the connected and the alienated; between the open platform of the web as its architects envisioned it and the gated enclosures of Facebook and other social networks; between an informed public and a misguided mob.

What is common to these struggles – and what makes their resolution an urgent matter – is that they all involve the diminishing status of truth. This does not mean that there are no truths. It simply means, as this year has made very clear, that we cannot agree on what those truths are, and when there is no consensus about the truth and no way to achieve it, chaos soon follows.

Increasingly, what counts as a fact is merely a view that someone feels to be true – and technology has made it very easy for these “facts” to circulate with a speed and reach that was unimaginable in the Gutenberg era (or even a decade ago).

Too much of the press often exhibited a bias towards the status quo and a deference to authority, and it was prohibitively difficult for ordinary people to challenge the power of the press. Now, people distrust much of what is presented as fact – particularly if the facts in question are uncomfortable, or out of sync with their own views – and while some of that distrust is misplaced, some of it is not.

In the digital age, it is easier than ever to publish false information, which is quickly shared and taken to be true – as we often see in emergency situations, when news is breaking in real time.”

It’s like the well-oiled tactics of the tobacco industry that have since permeated pretty much all industries—confuse the hell out of people so they don’t know what’s true anymore. It’s a popular PR tactic honed over decades for social control and manipulation of democracy, and it’s that element that exists and is especially reinforced online (particularly in real time), in the giant echo chamber of corporate social media networks, where the user is constantly subjected to streams and streams of information about current events—most devoid of context, analysis, or even significant depth in the time and space of a tweet.

The grounding that gives rise to physical reality and epistemological truths goes missing when we’re tied to screens that simply reflect our projections.

In the words of Sherry Turkle, the issues facing our planet right now cannot be solved in the time-space of texting/tweeting. So if the way we understand, perceive and relate to the world through the prism of media (mainstream media and social media alike) is in decline, it should tell us volumes about the state of democracy…

Global Voices’ adds: “The need for fact-checking hasn’t gone away. As new technologies have spawned new forms of media which lend themselves to the spread of various kinds of disinformation, this need has in fact grown. Much of the information that’s spread online, even by news outlets, is not checked, as outlets simply copy-paste — or in some instances, plagiarise — “click-worthy” content generated by others. Politicians, especially populists prone to manipulative tactics, have embraced this new media environment by making alliances with tabloid tycoons or by becoming media owners themselves.

UPDATE 29/7 — Example, of sorts. “#SaveMarinaJoyce conspiracy theories about British YouTuber go viral.” News reporting social media rumours, facts from source ignite disbelief and cynicism, confirmation bias at work, etc.

The Outrage Machine

This short video explores how the online world has overwhelmingly become the popular outlet for public rage by briefly illustrating some of the many stories of everyday people which have suddenly become public enemy number one under the most misunderstood of circumstances and trivial narratives. With the web acting like a giant echo-chamber, amplifying false stories and feeding on the pent-up aggression of the audience watching the spectacle, The Outrage Machine shows how these systems froth the mob mentality into a hideous mess, as a good example of where the spectacle goes and how its intensity has to keep ratcheting up in order maintain the audience attention, in a culture of dwindling attention spans, distraction and triviality.

Filmmaker and author Jon Ronson also recently wrote a book about this topic too, which is quite good. So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed. His TED talk is essentially a 17 min overview:

And a longer presentation with interview and Q&A from earlier this year:

Police set-up Sydney Muslims with post-seige raids, culture of fear

“About 2pm on Monday, December 15, Rebecca Kay took a phone call from NSW Police Counter-Terrorism.

The officer wondered if she could help police find an Islamic State flag. This was one of the demands of Man Haron Monis, the gunman holding 18 hostages at the Lindt cafe in Martin Place.

”And if they give him a flag he was going to exchange it for a hostage,” says Ms Kay, a convert to Islam who has become a prominent community member in western Sydney.

Ms Kay was one of several people contacted that afternoon, and she was only too willing to help.

”A lot of people in the Muslim community were devastated,” she says. “We were ready to jump – ‘just say how high’ – to help police prevent a tragedy.”

Ms Kay believes she called as many as 50 people, but finding an IS flag – or anyone willing to admit they had one – proved no easy task.

And soon her contacts started asking: “Are we being set up?”

”They were very suspicious,” she says. “Some accused me of being an informant.”

But she counselled that they should try to help.

And the officer kept calling back, “three or four times over the next hour to see if I had got an Islamic State flag or not. There was a sense of urgency that I get it and that I take it down to Bankstown police station, and they were going to put it in a patrol car, with the lights [flashing], and bring it to the city.”

Monis’s hostages recited his demands on Facebook and YouTube, as police worked to have them taken down. Hostage Julie Taylor, a barrister, said he would free five hostages if Prime Minister Tony Abbott called him to record a short conversation to be played on air. He would release two if the politicians told “the truth, which is that this is an attack by Islamic State against Australia”. And he would allow one to go if the flag were delivered.”

 
“In the end, Ms Kay says, police sourced their own flag. But then they told her it had been decided there would be no trade with Monis in any case.

By now she had burnt many bridges in her own community.

It got worse. About 2am the next morning – about the time of the deadly final shootout inside the Lindt cafe – NSW police searched the western Sydney home of one of the young men she had contacted. He had considered handing over his flag to Ms Kay but then thought, no, it was a trap.

”And so he then believed I did try to set him up,” she says.

The next morning, she was told, the Australian Federal Police raided the homes of another two men who had been contacted during the community’s urgent attempt to help save hostages.

“Obviously, they were listening to all our phone calls,” Ms Kay says.

“I want to be able to have dealings with police … but when it gets thrown back in your face, it sets us back two steps.”

Lawyer Zali Burrows, who represents some of the people who tried to help police, wonders: “Why didn’t they just print one out.” A laser printer could have produced the flag on cloth and they could have delivered it in half an hour, she says.

Lydia Shelly, a solicitor from the Muslim Legal Network, says: “Our overriding concern was with the safety of those innocent Australians being held against their will.”

Police would not respond to questions about the flag or whether they intended to allow Monis to display it to the world’s televisions and risk him winning the support of other extremists.

Ms Kay says there is nothing sinister about the flag that Islamic State has misappropriated. It depicts the prophet’s seal and “it’s a flag that Muslims should have. It’s not our fault that these barbarians have taken it as their flag.”

She says she would want to help police in another such crisis, but: “They’re not building trust. With this incident they have not built trust at all.

”You don’t understand the pressure cooker we’re in and the interference that the AFP and ASIO have, and the fear that they create, and how they stalk – and I can say stalk with confidence – members of our community and instil fear in their families and ostracise them from their workplace and the people they know, so they become paranoid and they don’t interact with anyone.”

”This is the kind of norm they’ve created here, where no one trusts anyone anymore.””