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Online social media: Who we would like to think we are

Open Facebook these days, and what you see is a lot of urging to quit Facebook, due to recent revelations about its relationship with the Cambridge Analytical kerfuffle.  Apart from the irony (surely intended) of posting the call to arms on Facebook itself, I think it’s a dubious response to a very real dilemma: how to avoid being manipulated by social media.

A recent New York Times op-ed by Michael J. Socolow gives some sound practical advice on the subject, but his view of the real problem is a near miss:

… Cambridge Analytica is the symptom, not the disease. The larger problem is that unpleasant and frustrating information — no matter how accurate — is actively hidden from you to maximize your social media engagement.

We — humans, that is — have always had difficulty facing unpleasant and frustrating information, especially when it conflicts with our world view; that’s highly unlikely to change.  There are several recent studies that suggest that, in fact, being confronted with rational arguments against your world view can even strengthen your resolve.  It becomes a test of loyalty, not a rational decision.  So, what to do?

Get a room, as they say.  For better or worse, we are often much more flexible in our positions, even ones we hold dear, when no one is watching.  It’s the public gaze that stiffens our backs.  That’s why sensitive negotiations are better conducted in secret until at least a tentative agreement is reached.  It’s also why our outrage at secret government hearings is misplaced, especially in these bellicose times.  Transparency is good, by all means, but after the fact, not during.  I suspect this effect is a genetic response to the social nature of humans as a species; what we sacrifice in accuracy we gain in solidarity.  It’s a trade-off, of course.

The problem facing us now is that in social media, the boundaries between public and private are hazy, if not absent.  It feels private to post something on Facebook.  You are usually alone when you do it, sitting at your computer, in control.  No surprise that it comes as a shock when someone (out of nowhere, you think) strongly disagrees.  In front of that huge list of friends you’ve accumulated.

When you read something on Facebook, on the other hand, it feels public.  As such, it invites comment, even disagreeable comment.

Of course, anything you put online is public, no matter how it feels at the time.  Keeping that in mind is a big step toward curbing emotional responses, and therefore mitigating the natural tendency to accept what supports our existing beliefs, and reject everything else.  Post in public, react in private.

Having said all that, Socolow’s point about the internet’s tendency to ghettoize information is real.  You don’t even have to be on social media as such.

You can do a little experiment.  Find a friend, preferably someone you tend to disagree with a lot, and sit side by side, and google the same words, each on your own computer.  Then compare the results.

Quitting Facebook will make you feel virtuous, but not much else.  Better to stay and apply pressure to change the algorithm.

2 thoughts on “Online social media: Who we would like to think we are

  1. The intellectually isolating ‘filter bubble’ at work, and not just on social media, everywhere online. I hate Facebook. Of course I haven’t tried any of the other social media except blogging so I might hate them worse. Blogging is the only sensible way to try to find people to interact with online…but I’ve been away. Hope it’s still real. I always read your posts, so thanks!

    • The filter bubble is nothing new, we were just nudged out of it more often in the past. The most insidious aspect of it is we are discouraged from compromise. Thanks for reading!

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