I’ve been putting a lot of thought into how we got to this place, and how we might get back from it.
Emilio Ferrara, Research Assistant Professor of Computer Science for University of Southern California, studied bot activity on Twitter and other social platforms prior to the election and made an interesting discovery. Namely, that “about one in every five election-related tweets from Sept. 16 to Oct. 21 was generated by computer software programs called ‘social bots.'”
One in five. That’s a huge portion of our online conversation, directed by a handful of people with some coding skill and an agenda.
And we already know that online conversation can deeply affect our views and actions. For example, a study done a few years ago showed that the tone of comments in the comment section of a newspaper article could completely change how a particular bit of news was perceived.
It works on Twitter, Facebook, and other platforms and websites as well. It can change minds, radicalize opinions and affect votes. It works on everyone, regardless of what you believe, which political candidate you support, or how intelligent you are.
It’s nothing particularly nefarious. It’s just how human minds work. Constant exposure to tones and opinions train your mind to work a certain way.
But that’s not all. We’re facing another problem, as well. Thanks to the rise of social networks and personalized search and newsfeed algorithms, we’re largely able to bypass any opposing opinions we might otherwise encounter.
Despite what Mark Zuckerberg thinks, the walled fence we’ve created around ourselves on Facebook (and Twitter, and other platforms) ensures that mostly we only ever interact with people we agree with, or at least, can get along with on a regular basis.
This, plus the fact that search results and social newsfeeds are often tailored to match our preferences, means that we each end up living in a happily misinformed bubble made up entirely of our own opinions and the people who reinforce them.
Adding that to the fact that a fifth of the outside conversations we encounter online are false flags built to goad us into a specific action, and multiply the result against a flood of fake “satirical” news and blatant lies dressed up as journalism, equals a badly misinformed population who are tilting at a world with no basis in reality and who thinks everyone agrees with them.
And I’m not just talking about conservatives, here. This crap happens to liberals, too, kids.
This math is untenable. We must change it if we’re to move forward.
I’m not completely sure how we go about doing that. I’m working on a few thoughts, kicking around some projects that might help. I think the starting point, though, has got to be letting go of our anger.
We have to stop being so goddamn mad at each other, and we have to stop being so goddamn hateful to each other. Trust me, I know something about anger and hate. I spent eight years of the second Bush presidency in a fine red rage the temperature of deep space and it felt great. But it didn’t accomplish a single thing.
It won’t now, either.
I think it’s time to be helpers. I think it’s time to listen, and to be kind, even when you don’t agree with someone. I think it’s time to talk, civilly, and try to teach, gently, and most of all, to roll up our sleeves and try to help.