I’ve been a citizen of the United States since I took my first breath–which was a while ago. There have been ugly times as a country since then. There have been disappointing times. There have been sad, hard, trying times. But there has never been any time that made me embarrassed to be an American.
We’ve lost the esteem of the World because of our national bad behavior. Every group is angry with some other group. Civility has evaporated. The difference between truth and “what I want to be the truth” has been obliterated. And choosing sides has become the national sport.
Maybe you feel the same way, maybe you don’t, but please keep reading. There may be more to this than a group jump into selfishness. Social media processes may be amplifying normal human shortcomings and setting us up to fight with each other.
A few days ago, I watched a TED Global NYC talk by Zeynep Tufekci, a Turkish “techno-sociologist” who‘s a professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. The title of her talk is “We are building a dystopia just to make people click on ads.” She explains that since Google, Facebook, and the rest are designed to make money by getting people to click on the ads placed on their sites, the process by which they determine which ads you will see has gotten increasingly sophisticated. Their computers are powerful enough to be able to track and sort through not only all the things you have clicked on over time but also what all the other people who clicked on similar things chose to see next. Google and Facebook “serve” you a unique combination of ads and content based on all that—with alarming accuracy about what you will want to look at and with an uncanny ability to keep you looking at the next thing they offer you. That’s how they manage us, as their product. They then offer our eyeballs and attention to advertisers—with the alarming accuracy.
All that could be just fine except for a few other pieces of this puzzle: 1.) They sell the ads without actually communicating human to human with the advertisers. (Bring on the Russian trolls!) 2.) The lines between advertising/opinion and fact are not precisely defined or carefully policed. (Bring on the real fake news!) and 3.) It’s an international marketplace. Anyone can place an ad. Anyone can ask for access to a specific cohort without explaining why or getting content approved that is then presented to those people without anyone else seeing it.
When there is a political ad on TV or in print that’s out of line, other viewers/readers serve as a policing source. The rest of us object, and the ad gets pulled. There is no one to object to what is being beamed to us individually on the internet. We see what whoever paid for the ad wants us to see. And those same sources also provide “content” without having to meet the standards of truth that traditional media have had.
New is now considered “entertainment.” We don’t get the facts; we get “stories.” Conflict is essential to good fiction and ramping up the conflict to keep the viewer engaged is part of that paradigm. For social media, this translates into offering increasingly biased content for each new click. Since all this is instantaneous and based on computer algorithms rather human decision-making, the verity of what is offered is never confirmed. The person who reads it expects it to be true, but there’s nothing in the process that assures that.
Given the nature of the internet and the availability of “big data” to come up with very refined lists of who might most easily be persuaded, a lot of damage can be done without anyone else knowing what’s going on. You can send nationalist stuff to people whose profile suggests they might lean that way—and get them to lean farther. You can send messages to black voters designed to discourage them—and keep them from voting at all. This was part of the advertising approach in the last Presidential campaign. It’s underhanded. It’s disgusting. And it’s available for international use.
This is happening because we are relying on an unreliable source. We are assuming the truth from Facebook, Google, and the internet when they are not worried about the truth. Their business model is to use big data to serve up carefully targeted prospects for whoever buys advertising. They make money by getting people to click on ads. Much as we do need to demand that these companies be held accountable for everything that’s posted on their sites, we can’t wait for that. We need to act now.
We need to stop clicking on ads. We need to not click on whatever they offer next. And we need to start talking to real people. The true mettle of this nation is in our ability to work together to solve problems. Regardless of who is suggesting “Let’s you and him fight”, we don’t have to do that.
I’ve you’d like to view that TED talk, here’s the link. Viewing it is well worth your time, and she’s a good speaker.
Mary Lloyd is a writer and retirement coach. Her way-out-of-date website is www.mining-silver.com. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org