How Social Media and Search Engines Have Destroyed the Democratic Process
In this day and age, most of the information that United States citizens see, consume, and digest are selected and served to them by algorithms that power either a social network or search engine.
Those algorithms were created for and are autonomously optimized with a single pursuit in mind: Keep each user happy, engaged, and for the love of Traffic, on our platform.
In this pursuit of user happiness, these algorithms have become extraordinarily good at learning about the opinions and predispositions of each individual user.
More importantly, these algorithms have learned what each user doesn’t like.
It’s more important for social media and search engines to know what content the user will be unhappy to see rather than what they will be happy to see, because there are so many other platforms for each user to switch to when a certain platform serves them something that didn’t make them feel good.
An apt metaphor would be a shopping mall food court; if you serve something the customer doesn’t like, there’s several other food suppliers in the same vicinity for that customer to go to next time they want something to eat, and they’re likely to remember the unpleasant experience with your restaurant for a long time. You’re never going to serve food to that customer again.
So, back to the point: social media networks and search engines want to keep their users happy and coming back for more, and the most important thing to avoid is serving any content that could make the user feel unhappy.
The type of digital content that will make a user most unhappy is, of course, political news or editorial commentary that goes against their personal beliefs and opinions. These are the preferences they hold nearest and dearest, and these are the preferences that are most likely to sway their clicks, likes, shares, and comments.
Right-leaning users are most unlikely to click through on a headline that hints at a left-leaning message, and vice versa.
This informs the platform’s algorithm to avoid showing right-leaning content to left-leaning users, and vice versa.
In this way, users of all political kinds are kept happy. When they search for information on a political issue, they are served content that reinforces the position they’ve already held. When they scroll through their social feed, they see content their like-minded friends have shared about the candidates they both approve of.
This polarization has and will continue to decrease the amount of public discourse between citizens with opposing views, since users will see and interact with less users who hold opposing views.
For the public discourse that does occur, it will become more extreme and vitriolic, and users on each side of the argument will be less informed of the views held on the opposite side.
Misinformation about the opposite side will be more rampant, since that will be the only type of content about their political opponents that users will be happy to be served by the algorithms running the platform.
If a functional democracy has ever existed, it didn’t exist with each political faction only conversing among themselves, consuming content that agree with their beliefs, and holding the majority of their interactions with opposing factions in a hostile manner.
So, in my view, the algorithms that run today’s social and search platforms are not aiding our democratic process, they are destroying it.
And if Donald Trump is elected president, I’ll take that as proof that the democratic process has already been destroyed. And I’ll point both of my middle fingers at Google and Facebook.