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Warning: Social media is skewing your world view

/ 05:03 AM December 25, 2021

I completely agree with Professor Randy David’s Public Lives column, “The new gatekeepers of information” (12/12/21)—social media companies like Google, Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter do act as spigots of what news, opinion pieces, passionate essays, influential images and videos, etc., we get exposed to. But unlike traditional media (newspapers, news broadcasts) where there is a human editor responsible for picking and choosing the news and being held liable for it, these social media companies rely on algorithms, and do it in such a way that is more insidious, subtle, subliminal.

Before the internet age, researching for a school assignment consisted of going through old copies of newspapers, magazines, encyclopedias. You’d then analyze and process what you dug up. You would consider yourself better-informed and, in a way, influenced by what you’ve read, usually expanding and broadening your world view as you got more exposed to varied content: staid science, left- or right-leaning opinion pieces, incisive articles that delved into both sides of an issue.

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Now imagine only being fed a certain agenda, whether it be left- or right-leaning, or purely commercial, influencing you to prefer one product over another. And you are unaware that this is happening, because you’ve left your guard down in this context: On Facebook, you just want to catch up on the latest news about friends and relatives. On Twitter, you’re just after the latest smart-alecky quote of your favorite wit. On YouTube, you just want to be entertained by funny videos. You haven’t steeled yourself or put on your “critical thinking cap,” unlike if you were about to take your seat at a lecture by some pompous know-it-all whose views you disagree with. No. You’re relaxed, open—and thus easily led down one path or another.

Just like the subliminal ads of old which interspersed images of sex or violence to subtly skew you to like or hate an idea, social media companies are slanting your world view. Google will show at the top of its search list the items it wants you to see based on its algorithms. In the beginning, it used to be straightforward: What was the most accurate or closest to what you wanted to search for was shown first. Later, Google started listing what promoted their advertisers or their own services first. Now, it also takes into consideration what influential entities (governments, big lobbyists, powerful organizations, etc.) would prefer it shows first. So now, a regular user would have to page through several pages of search results before he or she could get at other points of view. The search pages would also not group similar-themed facts and would scatter them at different pages, making it more difficult to read them one after the other. The result? It takes such effort to get to the truth that one would just default to believing the lie or half-truths.

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With Facebook/Instagram and Twitter, it’s the same thing: They highlight the tweets and posts on the users’ newsfeed (the first page one sees when going to those sites) that their algorithms produce. Twitter isn’t as bad as Facebook, which, as David points out, spouts the most emotion-triggering memes to convince users to keep coming back. What’s bad with Twitter is, it highlight tweets that its influencers and algorithms deem more important, i.e., what the user needs to see, and bury under hundreds of thousands of tweets what it does not want to see the light of day. So the folks behind Twitter can say “they don’t censor,” and yet again, it takes too much effort to get at other points of view.

When you go to YouTube or use its app, the platform features attention-grabbing videos with provocative images and click-bait headlines. Probably the most dangerous in terms of slanting our point of view as they bombard more of our senses: sight as well as sound. We’re exposed to music, sound effects, colors, emotion-provoking situations, smooth-talking voice-overs, triggering words.

Communist China, Putin’s Russia, and other tech-savvy oppressive regimes employ social media to create chaos in their opponents’ home ground and society. Russia employed it to weaken the European Union by getting the British to leave. During the Brexit election, Russian social media trolls kept posting on Facebook that the EU was stealing the British people’s jobs and taxing the British millions so it could send brown and black immigrants into their cities to cause terrorism. Enough British moms and pops fell for it, so Brexit won by a squeaker.

China is pushing media and influencers to use the acronym “CPC” (Communist Party of China) instead of “CCP” (Chinese Communist Party) when referring to China’s ruling elite, because its cyberspying agency has skewed Google to spout more positive stories and search results when “CPC” is used instead of “CCP.”

I find this state of things depressing, as the average Joe, indeed, will not bother to make the extra effort to find out what’s what. The result: These social media companies are priming an army of ignorant people, who can be more easily manipulated, to lead our society to god-knows-what ends.

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Vip Malixi is a freelance iOS developer, cartoonist, and writer who covers information technology and psychology.

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