…how the new digital sphere operates, they were diverted from their core job into a confusing swamp. Security isn’t just about who has more Cray supercomputers and cryptography experts but about understanding how attention, information overload, and social bonding work in the digital era.
This is also how Russian operatives fueled polarization in the United States, posing simultaneously as immigrants and white supremacists, angry Trump supporters and “Bernie bros.” The content of the argument didn’t matter; they were looking to paralyze and polarize rather than convince. Without old-style gatekeepers in the way, their messages could reach anyone, and with digital analytics at their fingertips, they could hone those messages just like any advertiser or political campaign.
Digital platforms allowed communities to gather and form in new ways, but they also dispersed existing communities, those that had watched the same TV news and read the same newspapers. Even living on the same street meant less when information was disseminated through algorithms designed to maximize revenue by keeping people glued to screens. It was a shift from a public, collective politics to a more private, scattered one, with political actors collecting more and more personal data to figure out how to push just the right buttons, person by person and out of sight.
Great storytelling always zooms in on individual people or incidents; I don’t know many other ways to bring a complicated problem to life in ways that people will remember. But if journalists don’t then zoom out again — connecting the welfare mother or, say, the controversial sculpture to a larger problem — then the news media just feeds into a human bias. If we’re all focused on whatever small threat is right in front of us, it’s easy to miss the big catastrophe unfolding around us.
But that is not to say that Facebook has a monopoly on social media platforms. It is also not, as some have argued, become so ingrained in how we live and work that we cannot do without it. It is not the railroads of years past. As Lance Ulanoff points out, users have a choice about their social media habits. Indeed, no one is required to have a social media account at all.