I watched an extremely troubling movie the other night on the recommendation of my friend Rich. It was on Netflix but is also available on YouTube and is called The Social Dilemma.
We wonder why partisan rancor and political division are at an unprecedented level in our country. This film suggests a likely answer.
We spend a lot of time on social platforms like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and others, but not nearly as much time as they spend on us. It seems that these platforms are populated and are indeed driven by algorithms that are individually calibrated to give each user what the platform decides that person wants to see, demonstrated by his pushing the “LIKE” buttons. Liberals get items with a liberal slant. Conservatives receive stories and items that match their previous likes. Those individuals who exhibit a liking of conspiracies get more of the same, as well as ads designed to sell black helicopters.
In other words, every time we “LIKE” an item on Facebook, our individual settings are fine-tuned. Our news feeds, as well as our comments, are monitored and used to even more precisely shape what we see on our screens. No two individuals get the same variety of items on their Facebook pages or on any other platform.
More and more when considering the opinions of people I know, I ask myself, How can they think that way? How can they believe that? They are, in fact, being programmed to feel that way by their interactions with their social media. And unfortunately, I am receiving the same treatment, with different modalities resulting in a different mindset.
Hitler’s propaganda minister, Joseph Goebbels, taught us that if you tell a lie enough times, it will be accepted as the truth. It is obviously also true that different spins on facts and stories can be individually tailored to each individual’s demonstrated tastes. Paul Simon penned the lyric “A man hears what he wants to hear and disregards the rest.” We watch and listen to news feeds that tell us what we want to hear. We never tune in to the others.
I’m not suggesting that Facebook, et al. possess Goebbels’s evil intent. I do suggest that they, in their driven purpose of monetizing our likes and dislikes, have inadvertently helped to drive a wedge in our population that quite possibly could lead to civil war.
I recall a social experiment from a few years back. In one, people looked at a picture of a woman in a dress. Half the people looking at the picture saw a blue dress, and half saw silver.
Two individuals standing side by side and seeing the opposite of each other in this experiment often questioned the sanity or truthfulness of the other. In this instance, there was nothing designed to cause the differing results. It would seem that in some ways, we are hardwired to interpret certain things differently. But when you add the tactic of designing individual inputs to reinforce a belief system in the way the social platform algorithms perform, the often seen results are ironclad sets of conflicting beliefs that become woven into our population. It is undeniably dividing our house, and we know what Lincoln told us about that.
What is the answer to these troubling circumstances? I wish I knew. But I find it quite telling that many of the executives of the large social platforms stated in the movie that they did not allow their children any time on the very platforms that they are selling to the rest of us. That is certainly food for thought.