Friday, November 20, 2020

The (Anti) Social Media?

Crazy people don’t know they are crazy. I know I am crazy therefore I am not crazy. Isn’t that crazy – Captain Jack Sparrow

Last week brought good news on the breakthrough on the Covid vaccine and the concern that a part of the western world may choose not to get vaccinated. Turns out that there is a segment of the population that believes that all kinds of vaccination is bad and have even chosen not to get their kids vaccinated, with bad outcomes. There is an audience for all kinds of conspiracy theories out there. The world is flat. Corporates are run by pedophiles. Climate change is a hoax. Moon landing never happened. Society always had people who were at the extremes but now every view gets expressed and finds an audience in this strange yet wonderful place called the social media.

Depending on your views and preferences, your media feeds will show you more and more links of what you have previously liked. Let’s say I am a Trump supporter and I like pages that glorify him. I will start seeing more and more pages that say good things about Trump. So when I come across people who don’t share the same views on Trump, I can’t believe how can they be so stupid. Turns out the other camp, because they believe otherwise, only see links that reinforces their belief of how bad Trump is, thanks to the same algorithms. That is how algorithms work and that is why they are so dangerous. The supporters of Trump feel he is god like. Those who don’t like him see the devil in him. Both these camps can’t believe that the other side is no naïve and end up thinking that they have an ulterior motive. The middle ground gets lost and people move towards extremes. Thank (blame?) the social media.

This trend is also getting accelerated due to multiple factors. Most of us find it very difficult to listen to an opposite view, hence avoid it. Social media allows one to find like minded people across the world to create large communities. Large communities lead to feedback loops and mob psychology if the belief is that you are in danger or under attack (think hyper nationalism, anti immigration). Social media leads to amplification of these fringe views leading to concern in the majority about the proliferation of the fringes. Sensationalism by Media also does not help – many times the headlines are totally different from the spirit of the article – radical headlines make for more clicks and viral stories.

Thankfully democracies have woken up to the manipulation of voters and the power that these platforms exert over their users. Social media allows each individual to view the world through their own lens. This leads to distortion as everyone is viewing the same thing differently and amplifies our own thoughts. The system of auto feeds reinforces our biases. If we let someone else make the choices for us, when the someone else is a programme, the end result can be dangerous. While I am totally for auto recommendations of which series or movies we should watch next (although recommendation of friends are better) auto feeds on social media is something that we need to be wary of. These programmes also get coloured by the biases of their creators. Some biases we are aware of, most biases we are not.

Thanks to the lock down we have moved to online consumption of daily news. One way to break this echo chamber could be to read whatever you find interesting across varies subjects instead of letting the news agency show you news according to your “preferences”. Other way could be to follow/interact with people who have a different view and being tolerant of those views. I am sure we will find a way to deal with this. Being aware of a problem is the first step in solving it.

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