I would like to lay out my thinking here regarding social media in an essay-style format for open discussion. I think that laying it out here amongst reasonable thinkers and everymen to help assess the idea and evaluate it critically would be useful to me and others. I believe this idea qualifies as a conspiracy because 1) the idea centers around a small group of actors carrying out a potentially malevolent scheme and 2) because this is all speculative- while it seems like a coherent idea, I don’t possess enough actual data and evidence to transition it away from conspiracy territory. (Yet).
All thoughts and input are welcome, insofar as they are from a genuine and constructive spirit. Am I out to lunch? (I very well might be). Does this idea make sense? Is there evidence I should be aware of that either wildly confirms OR disavows my claims? Else, the jokes must be funny. I will try not to take it personally!
I have numbered my paragraphs in parentheses to organize commentary; if you have a point/problem/contribution/whatever with a particular sentiment in any of the paragraphs, I would encourage you to have (#) in your comment accordingly to focus discussion.
(1) As a brief overview, I strongly believe that social media, (taking Facebook as the core example,) exhibits a polarizing effect on its wide base of users; this polarizing effect, (felt most acutely along the political dimension, but not exclusively,) has broadly destabilized, (among other things,) western civilization by eroding the ability for groups to act and speak cooperatively.
(2) My question, given this as an assumption, is this- did the original engineers of this model, (e.g. Zuckerberg et al.,) know their platform would have this kind of effect when they were laying out the foundations of social media? If they did know it would cause this harmful effect and launched it anyway, that would make them horrifically evil and exceptionally competent villains of the most reprehensible variety; as well, it would imply we are under the throes of a dreadful scheme to, at least, undermine our psychological autonomy and maintain/reform a status quo in their interests. If they did not fully see the potential impacts this technology would have on discourse and launched anyway, (either in underappreciation or complete ignorance of this risk,) that would make them colossal dullards and imbeciles of the highest order. I don’t know what to think- the answer could go either way!
(3)The, “key ingredient,” (so to speak,) of this polarizing effect, I believe, is in an algorithmic approach that creates a positive feedback loop driven by cognitive bias. It is a relatively simple and strikingly genius model- if you want to have people keep using your site and sell an audience to the ads to acquire revenue, it helps to keep giving your users engaging content. While that may be mysterious and laborious to figure out what users like in other contexts, facebook, (as an example, you can plug in almost any other site you like in these examples,) found a wonderful way to let you do the work for them. Every time you comment, click like, share, whatever, they are adding that action in context to a profile that will filter more of that content accordingly in your direction; this effect magnifies with time as the accuracy of the profile grows, being able to more powerfully predict what will elicit reactions with more specificity as you feed it data.
(4) Conversely, every time you don’t engage with something, by just either ignoring it or having it push you away from the site, facebook will accordingly distill that content away from your eyes in a way you never even notice, just to keep you satisfied and engaged with the site. (Note: this, “engagement,” doesn’t always have to take the form of strict happiness- in fact, outrage, shock, and vindication, anything that skews to the sensational, is likely to be more visceral in terms of emotional response). Either way, as a result of this process you see more of the things you, “like,” and less of the things you don’t, “like.” This we know is deliberate- it’s how they make their money by having a remarkably powerful tool to sell to advertisers.
(5) This is ok if all you were exposed to was pictures of pets and value-neutral content, but social media is filled with both news and other content that can heavily influence your worldview in a particular direction. Police shootings. Pedo’s and imbeciles in government. BIDEN/TRUMP DID WHAT. Some news splash designed to make you say, “HEY, THAT IS OBJECTIONABLE!” Whatever it may be. Click-driven content that relies on emotional stimulation is the take away.
(6) Cognitive bias, (that is, confirmation bias, cherry-picking evidence that endorses your hypothesis while pretending what contradicts it doesn’t exist,) is extremely difficult to counteract for even at the best of times but it is damn near impossible when you are being fed a deluge of what you already believe to be true while perceiving nothing to challenge that view, all compounded by the difficulty associated with parsing unreliable information on the internet. The natural and reflexive emotional response is to shy away from conflicting information and, unlike reality, social media doesn’t punish this indulgence- in fact it will reward you for doing so. Instead of being fed a complicated picture, facebook will gladly take away the stuff you don’t like and feed you the stuff it thinks it knows you by because it makes you a more vulnerable consumer. Very few people, if any, could stand any chance of vetting themselves against that constant exposure to an absolute torrent of influencing, even persuasive, information without being changed in some way. I would argue that most, verging on all, of us are.
(7) This is especially pronounced in regards to what I would characterize as, “mob dynamics,” and, “dunking.” (This is more of a twitter phenomenon, but it replicates across the other platforms). If a sentiment is expressed that a number of others agree with, people looking in can falsely equate that popularity, (signified by likes or reactions,) with “rightness,” whether or not the idea has merit or logical soundness. It is entirely likely that in the face of that popularity, and fearing retaliation, people will contribute to the runaway popularity of the sentiment and adopt it, if just superficially to avoid punishment, which can recursively iterate as more people are attracted to the comment. If this happens enough, imitated behaviour can become sincere behaviour, and the notion endorsed out of fear of reprisal can become integrated genuinely as a belief. Further still, even if an idea is not logically sound but instead relies on some kind of emotional appeal/traction, (most acutely exemplified in witty, “one-liner,” style expressions in regards to some sensitive issue,) it can effectively negate any consideration for any valid critiques of the idea, invoking instead a mob of attackers to idly defend what they believe is right/popular. We still haven’t, as a species, fully gotten over distinguishing popular opinions from logically sound ideas, but whatever progress we did make dies in an online thread.
(8) The longer you use social media, the more likely you are, by the nature of its design, to filter the world through a very exclusive and narrow worldview over any sufficient timespan. This is the antithesis of critical engagement. This can happen in regards to many things, but the most relevant for discussion is perhaps along the political dividing lines. As more and more people get warped by this process on either side of the aisle, the odds of falling into an insular community with similar views goes up, becoming near-inevitable at some point. Once inside these shells, basically echo chambers, the likelihood of your views becoming crystallized and unchanging is all but guaranteed. If you then have two groups who, (based on what facebook is feeding them,) both believe themselves to be solely correct, (and the other groups intractably wrong,) then conflict would be seen as similarly inevitable.
(9) When you consider exactly how many people use social media, I would find it difficult to say that this effect doesn’t translate to real world dynamics. Whether people bemoan social media or not, and whether they are aware of effects like this to any extent, the fact is that most people still rely on it to stay in touch with family and friends, and it has profound impacts on the world we live in now. It is not reasonable or effective to expect people to just abandon it, however much we might need to do so. It has established a profoundly powerful emotional mechanism of ensuring engagement, and I am altogether unsure of how to properly address this.
(10) As a consequence of people falling into insulated groups of thinking, (likely to be driven by one ideology or another,) people are consequently becoming less moderate, prone to extreme/radicalized views of their identified association and vilifying of opposing groups, and it is deteriorating how we relate to one another. (As far as I can see, at least). Racial politics seem to have gotten more bitter and entrenched. The divide between left and right has erupted into literal combat at points. It seems, by my estimation and many other accounts, that our world is morphing into a series of battlegrounds struggling for dominance and I strongly suspect that social media is at the heart of it. This is unsustainable and abhorrent for many reasons, not the least of which is that it leaves the average person much more vulnerable to the whims of the ultra-powerful, (like facebook,) is the death of critical thinking, and also primarily because life is difficult enough even when we are all trying to work together to get through it, let alone when we are at each other’s throats. We need to get along to be successful, to think critically and to avoid being screwed over by those who want to do it most.
(11) Facebook is just one example- as a broad pattern of establishing engagement and distillation through user and community driven engagement, any site you visit follows this model- twitter, instagram, reddit, etc. (I recognize the irony of posting this on a social media website notorious for its mob antics). They all have ways of feeding you content you like while feeding you less of what you don’t like. They all carry emblematic and symbolic content that influences your worldview. They all foster the creation of insulated thinking.
(12) Could this effect have been predicted, or the polarizing effect designed? I don’t think that is an altogether outlandish proposal. If there were indeed any kind of cabal with a remote vested interest in uprooting social order and institutions, the precise kind of conflict-stoking that social media has instigated would be conducive to accelerationist aspirations. Similarly, if all politics really are meant to distract from class gaps then the use of social media would be a wonderfully economical solution to keeping people distracted and inter-combative while fighting poverty countermeasures suppressing labor reform.
(13) If this effect wasn’t intentional, (and of course it would never be admitted to,) how could they not see this kind of effect on the horizon? Could they seriously have such little foresight and understanding of human psychology that this effect would completely escape them? Or did they see this effect as a by-product and not care, blinded by greed and apathy?
(14) I am not writing this as a conservative crying over SJW’s. I am not writing this as a liberal upset about white supremacist conclaves or anything like that. I am writing this as a person who is not relishing the combat and trying to see the forest burning through the trees. This should be a truly bipartisan issue. Put another way, the entire political spectrum is suffering from this and every politician and technocrat is using this issue against you, profiting off of our collective disorder. I want to circulate this idea not necessarily as an effort to castigate the giants behind these tech companies, but as a plea to unify, if anything. I leave it to you to consider.
Thank you for reading!