Sunday, February 21, 2021

The Social Dilemma

                                                                                                   written 14 February 2021

                                                                                               published 21 February 2021



            Part of the sadness of our time is the deep polarization in our country, and the wild disparity in what we believe to be "true".  Our economic system is not working for many in the country, and various ideas are put forth about "who is to blame".  Conspiratorial answers run the gamut from such "proven facts" as the 1949 conviction of five corporations who cooperated to destroy electric interurban rail systems, to the current "insane delusions" of Q-anon and the Q-cumbers (mindless vegetables that end up in a pickle) who believe Trump will save us from the alien lizards who control the blood drinking pedophiles of the Democratic party.

            In between there are a lot of weird and unexplained events in the world.  I personally believe that not all the crop circles are man-made, and find it significant that on 9/11, three buildings in New York fell into their own footprint at free fall velocity, but only two had been hit by planes.

            How is a person to decide what is "real" and what is "fiction"?

            For myself, I talk and listen to people whose opinions I respect and read about an issue in different sources.  But all this external input is balance against an internal sense of what feels "true", based on previous experience and cultural programming.  Of course, this is not fool proof, by any means, but without this internal confirmation process, I could easily follow any mass hysteria.

            The power of the internet has shifted how information is delivered.  The book and newspaper industries are economically stressed, losing readership, with editorial control shrinking into smaller groups of owners.  The situation is worse online, where a few social media organizations control the information people get.  "The Social Dilemma", a recent documentary on the subject, is well worth watching and can be streamed on Netflix.

            In 2003, Harvard sophomore Mark Zuckerberg created Facemash, allowing fellow students to compare pictures of the women on campus, two at a time, determining who was "hotter".  This was so popular it crashed the campus server.  Zuckerberg launched Facebook within a year, leading to massive fame and fortune.  Facemash focused only on looks, without any regard for the deeper qualities that make up a whole human being.  This prioritization of superficiality over substance is at the core of Facebook as well, only the consequences are more damaging, because the platform now has 2.8 billion users.

             Social media such as Facebook are primarily economic enterprises making money selling ads to be displayed while you are viewing various pages.  They claim to be content neutral, and not in the business of censoring content, but like an addiction, the longer they can hold your attention, the more marketable you are to their advertisers.  Their algorithms are designed to keep track of what you have been watching, and provide you more of the same.  As people become more addicted, they are less likely to seek other information sources.  Bad actors have taken advantage of this, resulting in the virulent spread of disinformation, with great social cost.  

            Russian trolls on social media have been identified as agents affecting the last two US presidential elections and the Brexit vote.  Genocide against the Rohingya minority in Myanmar was linked to Facebook disinformation.  When Twitter banned Trump from their platform for repeatedly posting information about election fraud that had already been proven wrong, disinformation on the subject dropped by 75%.  

            This information model, with extreme focus on external input, diminishes critical thinking and internal evaluation, a form of hypnosis, contributing to the rise of delusional group thinking.  It also makes suggestive people vulnerable to group shaming, or simple lack of group acceptance.  Young people in particular show increases in depression and suicide as a result of negative social media responses.  Excessive screen time stunts development of inter-personal skills.

            However, there are serious free speech concerns about requiring social media companies to censor material.  One suggestion is to ban anonymous posting, much like full disclosure in political advertising, and require a verified identity for everyone posting online.  Further, people should treat social media like any other powerfully addictive substance, to use in measured moderation, limiting frequency and duration of indulgence, while recognizing that children are particularly vulnerable.  Another alternative is to drop out of social media completely, and start talking to our neighbors.