Facebook and the Ghettoization of Thought
Since the earthquake of an election (the US one, as if anything else matters at this point), there has been an increasing number of fingers that have pointed at Facebook, some going as far as placing some of the blame of the results on Facebook.
This is not another article on Trump vs Hillary. It definitely is not about who would make a better president. In my opinion, the electoral college has spoken and the future will unfold in directions that are yet to be seen.
However, this is about the disturbing feeling that has been growing in me about how social networks — and I hate to single you out, Facebook — is leading to an abandonment of critical thinking and basic search abilities.
Like pretty much every semi-mature adult in the world, I was following the results of the election. Multiple tabs open, I was switching between 538 and Google following the count and comparing against the projections. Sprinkled in there was a liberal amount of cursing CNN’s take on what they think is journalism merged with a blow by blow recount of a supposed gladiatorial contest.
It was fairly evident by the time Florida tightened and swung towards Hillary and then swung back to Trump and with the difference holding steady, that Hillary was in trouble. The night devolved into an angst ridden ride with much cursing of the polls. Even 538 was off! Well technically, they hedged their bets by assigning probabilities….even so, the lead up to Nov8th on their site indicated a contrary result to what we knew before we went to bed.
When Hillary conceded, a lot of people tried to console themselves unsuccessfully that even though the electoral college loved Trump, the popular vote defiantly backed Clinton.
A few days later, I was shown a post shared on Facebook that really increased a feeling of disquiet I have had for a while. I have anonymized the post below.
For a while now, I have sensed that everyone had really fixed views on both candidates (or a remote third) and that everyone had articles to back them up…everyone had a new article to confirm their internal bias and more importantly they never mentioned a counter-point…nothing was ever debunked in their view. Their view was always reenforced, and it seemed that a lot of my friend/family circle got their information from some article/site shared on Facebook.
The post above really nailed it for me. I couldn’t believe it, as the numbers didn’t make sense. It seemed to me that somehow the narrative was flipped to the benefit of an agenda. Yes it affirmed the electoral college results, but the popular vote was exactly opposite from what I thought it was.
Suddenly, I doubted myself…was I wrong about what I thought the popular vote was? Was the media truly that feckless that they would lie so blatantly and massage the story to march to their drum beat?
A quick search and read on multiple sites (AP was my ground truth for much of this) showed that this post may not have any bearing in reality…unhinged from all possible connection to an unbiased view point.
I dived into the post looking for any corroboration, and all I found was a budding data scientist who had just drawn a random conclusion based on Twitter feeds (and yes, I think Twitter has it’s own problems as well). Anyone following the vote count should have been startled. here was possible proof of media bias, effectively exposed by this dynamite of a post. The comments and the shares showed that a lot of people took this to be the truth and were propagating this post in their own echo chambers.
It was astounding following the comments. No one had done a basic search to see if this was plausible, let alone true. However, it seemed that quite a few people bought this hook line and sinker. Upon reading a few of the shares, it seemed fairly evident that those who liked this post were just reaffirming their own base rationales.
This was profoundly disturbing to me, as it showed that even a patently false claim could pass as truth and influence a group’s thought process. It is so insidious that it can effectively shut off any sense of objectivity, that people were disinclined to do even a basic search to validate what they were reading…everyone happily living and sharing their thoughts in their own warm, safe uterus…embryos that nurtured themselves on their own ecosystems, leading to full blown memes that had no grounding in reality.
Ghettos of thought that walls off it’s inhabitants, feeding and nurturing themselves on their biases can only lead to a much poorer informed public, ultimately becoming a threat to the fundamentals of civilized thought…to progress…to a better humanity!
Facebook has claimed the 99% accuracy as it’s defense. That defense is absolute garbage. It fly’s in the face of their own claims to technical superiority. You can’t claim that you hire the top 1% of people/minds as it makes a difference to your business and then on the same token claim that being 1% inaccurate makes no difference…the power of most things lie in the exceptions. We have one president out of >300 million people, the first world war is attributed to one incident…the outliers have major impact, and to deny that is sheer hypocrisy.
I am tempted to draw a parallel to a man shouting fire in a crowded theatre leading to pandemonium and loss of life. Does the theatre bear any responsibility?
The man bears responsibility. You will rightly point out that just like the theatre, you do not bear responsibility…and you would be right to an extent. The difference is glaring. The theatre does not profit from providing the means for the man to shout…you do…by actively curating content for users based on their likes/dislikes you control the medium…you control what is said (actively moderating against objectionable images is control), and no you cannot abrogate your responsibility by saying that you have objective AI doing the curation. You already censor people…nudity seems to get your goat…how is it any worse than patent falsehoods that you help propagate?
Would it be ok for me to open a series of brick and mortar rooms where people can congregate and discuss hate? I can wash my hands off any moral culpability by saying that all I provide is a space for people to meet and discuss their ideas…again that might be ok…but if I set it up in a fashion that invites are only sent out based on current membership and their likes and dislikes in a manner that is solely under my control, then I pretty much guarantee that I am going to create spaces that are havens for the most vile and despicable thoughts that us humans are capable of. Ghettos that are designed to keep the poison in and any hope for cure out.
If you are in the business of promoting/curating articles, can you at least provide some indicator of the degree of truth that article represents? Almost like a fact checker. Even if people ignore it, you have at least tried… especially if articles are that popular, you bear some responsibility to provide the reader some semblance of balance.
Could you outsource it to a third party(or a few of them that you cannot control financially or otherwise) that can fact check these articles? Consensus based algorithms may help?
Legally, you may not be responsible for the content…however, if your mission is to make the world a better place, if it is to provide a means to help people interact, learn and in the process change the world for the better…then it is your moral obligation to do so.
You have proven yourself to be adept at defining how technology and human behavior can evolve…embrace this challenge, and help all of us make a more informed world in the process.
PS: Since I started babbling on this, Facebook has some ideas that they are putting out there to address this: http://www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-38039506
This is a good step. But please do not dismiss responsibility so blithely, as if you do not accept it, then the will to carry out said changes often does not stand the test of time.