What does your internet look like?
Getting caught in the echo chamber of retweets and autoplay videos doesn’t expand you mind, it narrows it.
You have to keep an organized Excel spreadsheet to keep track of all the “campaign ending” controversies since the start of this election season. But one (of the many) that stuck out to me was Donald Trump sharing an image of Hillary Clinton from a racist Twitter feed.
Trump’s use of Twitter is prolific. Not since Ashton Kutcher getting a million followers has a Twitter account dominated the news cylce. His crudely artful trainwreck of a micro-blog catches the media by storm as every pundit tries to analyze his latest nickname or self-praise in the face of national tragedy.
In a spurt of vitriol several weeks ago, Trump tweeted out this meme of Hillary Clinton, complete with a graphic similar to the Star of David. Immediately after this was sent out, social media exploded with claims of anti-Semitism. While the debate continued for a solid three days until the next offensive tweet, the graphic was sourced to a Twitter account known for sending out neo-Nazi rants, racist images and generally stuff that a content that a president should avoid.
In their podcast after the offending tweet, the political team at Nate Silver’s fivethirtyeight discussed what Trump’s internet must look like for him to find such an offending image. The riff got me thinking about the larger question of consuming news. What does my internet even look like?
Think about your own virtual footprint for a second — who do you follow on Twitter or Facebook? Instagram? What memes flood your news feed? Are you more likely to see a #NeverTrump hashtag or #ImWithHer?
The Internet is a certifiable high pressure fire hose of information constantly being unloaded on users. It takes algorithms and other filters to control the stream and make it a manageable shower of information instead of a flood.
Our feeds are the product of our searches, friends and complex analytics providing users with content that reinforces previously held beliefs. While Trump apparently looks at neo-Nazi accounts, he also is caught in a reassuring echo chamber. Every few days he will tweet out a poll from a conservative leaning website that favors him, or give credence to fringe Internet conspiracy theories like Ted Cruz’s father’s supposed involvement in the Kennedy assassination.
“What most algorithms are trying to do is to increase engagement, increase the amount of attention you’re spending on that platform,” he said.
It is not about spreading news, it’s about retention viewing. Websites need as many concurrent viewers on their site as possible, and the way they do that is through flash headlines designed to get the most clicks. What is missed in the news filter of algorithms are the less sexy, more nuanced stories.
For example, the other day I saw a tweet from a disappointed Bernie Sanders supporter who claimed the Senator had sold out by endorsing Clinton. In a series of tweets, he said Sanders’ had abandoned his revolution, and that he will be voting for Gary Johnson.
While it’s fine to like Johnson, but if he is going to vote for Johnson because he thought Sanders’ revolution “failed,” then he is missing some key information. Sanders might not have won the battle for the nomination, he won the war over the party platform.
The Democratic Party Platform is littered with Sanders’ fingerprints. While he could not bring his political revolution to the White House, he brought it to the platform, which might be more important in the long run. Here are some of the hallmarks of his political revolution which made the official party platform:
- $15-an-hour-minimum wage
- Abolishing the death penalty
- Expanding the Earned Income Tax to low-income families
- Free community college programs
- Cracking down on Wall Street
I’m using this little anecdote to highlight the larger trend of people who will pay attention to the “flash” headlines in their news feeds, but not follow up. The algorithms in my ill-informed friend’s news feed only fed him information on Sanders endorsing Clinton, instead of the more nuanced and not as easily meme-able narrative of platform building.
Confession: My own Internet is not the most diverse information net in the world. I read the bastions of traditional liberal journalism: The New York Times, The New Yorker, and Washington Post. Then I also read more new media publications like The Ringer, Politico and fivethirtyeight.
Note: Shoutout to The Tennessean. It is a great mix of old and new media and I read you too. Thank you for the internship.
Even Medium uses the same algorithms to suggest articles for me. It is inescapable. The question is how do we break this feedback loop?
The best thing any consumer of content (i.e. everyone) can do is realize that what they see on their screens is not always an accurate representation of reality. We need to shut the screens, and experience the world. But even that has its limits, as Pariser found out when working on his book The Filter Bubble: What the Internet Is Hiding from You.
“It’s hard, and that’s partly because we know the people that we know,” Pariser said in the interview with NPR. “Those tend to be slanted in one ideological direction or another so you have to really work to find people who think differently.”
The real world does not offer any easy fix either. The challenge thus for consumers is to break out of their own echo chamber, whether the virtual one or the physical. As responsible consumers, we need to seek out conflicting opinion and engage in it, not dismiss it.
The problem with people like Trump is not only being surrounded by Internet sycophants, but physical ones as well. He is notorious for only relying on a small inner circle of advisers. The members of his Legion of Doom all have the last name Trump, Hicks or Manafort. All very like minded, all more likely to narrow Trump’s mind instead of expanding it.
Maybe what Trump, and people like him, need more than anything is to finally break away from the algorithms and group think. They need to take a long look at what their Internet looks like, and how it affects their thinking. You’ll be a better consumer, and maybe a little less likely to tweet out a racist image.