Celebrate the Facts!
The recent political discourse in the United States is interesting, in the same way, one might consider nuclear war. The demography of the United States moving toward post-Caucasian status imperiled a militant cohort. Those new, white voters helped elect a populist pompous President and staffed the first coup attempt in the United States history. Concurrent with those developments is the growth of the Internet, where anyone can advocate for essentially anything. Central to this unrest are social media companies’ thirst for revenue, regardless of morality, and their role in radicalizing population segments.
Fast facts about social media:
Social media companies garner revenues from selling data and advertising. Advertisers pay for exposure to customers, particularly buyers who need their products. Social media’s mission is to keep the user engaged. They keep them engaged by feeding content meeting their specific interests and keeping them interested.
Platforms have substantial financial incentives to increase user engagement. For example, social media companies make money by pushing ads to users in tandem with items in the user’s newsfeed. As a result, social media companies want highly engaged users who spend much time reviewing posts, liking items, posting, and sharing. Those readers are more likely to observe the advertisements and, in theory, buy those products.
Social media platforms use advanced technology to improve value to advertisers and enrich themselves by charging higher prices. They harvest massive amounts of data from users then target specific audiences for advertisers based on that information. The targeting tool is an algorithm.
Social media operators use algorithms to tailor what each user sees on their sites. These algorithms predict content relevance to specific users based on past user behavior data. The data includes contacts, interactions, content consumed, the amount of time spent on that content, specific content liked and shared, and subscriptions to categories and groups. It also includes sex, income range, relationship status, and interests. In addition, social media platforms sell targeted advertising to specific users.
Of course, each platform uses a different proprietary algorithm and they are complex. For example, the Facebook algorithm gathers more than 10,000 signals to predict a user’s likelihood of engaging with an individual post.
Facebook went from a personal ad for one’s wealth, beauty, fame, and love for family to a hostile and polarizing place. Facebook poured gas on the fire in 2017, when it reformulated the algorithm to give the ‘angry’ emoji five times the weight of a ‘like.’ For the most politically oriented one million American users, almost 90 percent of the content that Facebook shows them is about politics and social issues.
Facebook provides people on political extremes with the most misinformation, especially users associated with right-leaning content, to whom Facebook pushed one disinformation post out of every 40. For extremely partisan users, algorithms turn their feeds into echo chambers of conspiracy theory and extremist political Infotainment that support, and never challenge, their viewpoints.
On top of that, users build their networks, which affects the content they see, including the types of disinformation they see in their newsfeed. As a result, social media presence in the news industry is enormous.
The use of algorithms to curate news content disrupted the gatekeeping role previously held by conventional news platforms. These stand-alone media sources had some semblance of journalistic integrity, including fact-checking, review, and approval processes. Instead, the new and only screening criteria is popularity, not accuracy.
Social media platforms fall under federal law Section 230, including any ‘information service, system, or access software provider that provides or enables computer access by multiple users to a computer server.’ This law protects them from liability for publishing and, in some instances removing or restricting access to another person’s content. Pornography tube sites fall under the same guidelines, allowing them to link to pirated content.
The medium is the message is a saying coined by philosopher Marshall McLuhan. It means the form of a message determines how a recipient receives the message. McLuhan, long dead, argued that electronic communications would have far-reaching sociological, aesthetic, and philosophical consequences, to the point of altering how we experience the world.
The medium is the message is valid about social media, particularly when viewed through hand-held devices. The form features small screens, simple concepts, and images. It seeks engagement over content and has a breathless pace. It attempts to become addictive by stimulating emotions. Often those emotions are the worst in humans.
Happy couple posts are inversely proportional to the level of happiness in the relationship. Images of experiences associated with wealth, expensive restaurants, resort living, and expensive cars likely indicate a person’s infatuation with wealth. Once Americans considered bragging rude in polite company, but exhibitionism is now mainstream American culture.
There is a quick way to social media relevance: controversy. Akin to earlier shock jocks like Howard Stern, politicians, celebrities, and everyday people understood this early and used it to their benefit. And now that the platforms have weeded them out, those individuals are quick to argue prejudice and censorship by liberal elites. Advocating insurrection against the United States government or espousing racist views certainly appears to cause banishment in extreme cases. And the social media terms of service agreements certainly allow for such treatment.
Removing a purveyor of hate like Marjorie Taylor Greene, whom Twitter removed in January 2022 for spreading lies about vaccines, seems socially responsible. One wonders, however, if advertising revenue concerns motivated Twitter more than altruistic or ideological reasons. The difference between a gadfly like Greene and provocateur Donald Trump is that Trump can skate near the line of hatred and a blatant untruth. Greene, charitably put, was never an honor student, can’t seem to imitate that skill.
Social media platforms share the blame for extremism with political entrepreneurs such as Roger Stone, Greene, and anti-vax propagandist and conspiracy theorist Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. Kennedy, the son of assassinated Senator Robert Kennedy, disgraces his heritage and endangers his health in his search for fortune and glory.
There is not much hope for reform and regulation of social media, despite its role in fanning violence, discord, and racism. Corporations can’t vote, but their money can buy many votes in the dark money era. Politicians, dependent on dark money, will likely be happy to grandstand in public but will continue to gobble up contributions and vote the way their corporate masters tell them. Corporations whitewash their problems with contributions to charitable causes of the day and regard such as a public relations expense.
Michael Donnelly investigates societal concerns with an untribal approach - to limit the discussion to the facts derived from primary sources so the reader can make more informed decisions.