Why do we bother?

If you’re here because you clicked a link on Facebook, congratulations! You have exposed the irony of this article, which asks: Why do we even still bother with Facebook?

The answer is simple: we do, because Facebook is a very easy and convenient way of staying in touch with friends and family. Unfortunately, that isn’t all it is.

Since 2008 – some would argue even earlier – Facebook has slowly but surely been transforming into a news platform. First, as a kind of news aggregator that populates your Newsfeed with articles scoured from the web; then later, as a quasi-newspaper with stories and articles written (sometimes poorly), edited (but rarely), and published (willy-nilly) by individual users. In other words, a news portal without gatekeepers.

But it’s even gone beyond that. Now, with its algorithms, Facebook has transitioned from being an un-vettable news platform to an echo-chamber – a digital equivalent to a cordon sanitaire, if you will.

Imagine if somehow, your newspaper delivery guy knew what stories you liked and didn’t like. Now imagine if, before he handed you your paper, he took the time to cut out all the stories you didn’t like, so you would only see those stories that you did like. That’s Facebook now. And that’s some scary shit.

But things have gotten even more worrisome.

Goebbel’s Happy Place

To be perfectly fair, no one has any idea why the account of a fair and level-headed veteran journalist like Inday Varona was shut down for review. Theories abound, but some have the ring of truth about them when you consider how this review process is usually triggered.

An account is typically flagged for review when enough people “flag” it as being in violation of FB’s terms of service. So, the theory goes, Varona’s account was suspended as a response to adverse reports numerous enough to catch FB’s attention. Hence, the most popular theory surrounding Varona’s blocking is that the system is being gamed, i.e., the rules are being used in a technically legitimate fashion, to achieve a goal which is contrary to the purpose for which those rules were established.

If this theory is true – and I have no information which suggests otherwise – then it might have something to do with the fact that FB has fired most, if not all, of its human editors. Sifting through reports of violations, therefore, is no longer a matter of human judgment, but a mathematical process that relies on the frequency of reports and the identification of key words. While this is probably more objective, it doesn’t take a lot of imagination to see that it is also more susceptible to deception.

So where does that make FB? Sure, FB is still that perfect virtual meeting place for friends and family where you can coo over your friend’s babies then PM other friends about how ugly those babies actually are. But FB is now also an echo chamber that feeds off of – and reinforces – its user’s biases, and which can be trained to silence dissenting voices, through the clever use of keywords that Facebook considers triggering.

When you factor in that a lot of people now get their news almost exclusively from FB – a trend beloved by those who deride traditional media as ‘bias’ – FB is now also a propaganda machine Joseph Goebbels could have only dreamed of.

And ultimately, that is the answer to the original question, why do we even still bother?

We’ve always trusted our gut

We bother because we are hardwired to love propaganda. As a species, we have evolved to appreciate the value of shared knowledge and to distrust information coming from strangers. IN its success creating individual online communities for each user, designed by each user for himself, FB has turned media into a stranger, not to be trusted. This sort of thing hits us at the gut level, which is why it is very difficult to convince devoted Facebookers that the news they’re getting and relentlessly sharing might just be a load of crock. With its algorithms, FB has created for them a safe place where their preconceived notions are validated and reinforced. Why would they prefer “outsiders” (read: the mainstream media) who challenge them and tell them that they’re all stupid neanderthals?

Zoom out a bit.

Modern society is the way it is because for the longest time, we have – mostly by consensus – allowed essentially alien concepts to influence our decision making. If you’re hungry, pick a fruit. Eat it. Kill a pig, cook it, and eat it. And yet, we’ve learned to deny ourselves the easy pay-out. So instead, we store the fruit, we salt away the pork so that we’ll have something to eat tomorrow.

In the same way, we’ve learned – as a society – to build institutions like the media to act as gatekeepers for news. We resist the urge to believe every rumour our neighbour whispers in our ear, until we hear the gatekeepers – newspapers, tv news programs – confirm those rumours. Faith in traditional media, therefore, used to work because we willingly suppressed the more instinctual urge to believe our community, having faith instead in people we trusted to sort out the facts for us.

FB – and social media in the information age in general – has broken down that consensus by facilitating the neighborly whispers our gut wants to believe. This isn’t necessarily wrong. And certainly our gatekeepers have too often failed us. What makes it scary is that trusting our gut with the intensity we’re seeing now leaves us open to the unscrupulous amongst us. Heck, never mind the unscrupulous others, it leaves us vulnerable to our own worst fears – the demons born in the deepest recesses of our reptile brain.

I daresay that was never the intention of social media,

Something needs to change

Whenever something goes viral – like Kim Kardashian’s pulchritude, for example – we always say that it’s broken social media. Well, newsflash: social media has broken US. And something needs to be done about it.

It’s not going to be easy though. Change never is.

As a society, we need to once again decide that there is intrinsic value in having institutions in place that challenge our gut feel. We need to be more open, once more, to the idea that we don’t always have the big picture and that there might be something we can learn even from those who disagree with us. We need to re-build our skepticism for easy answers and embrace the struggle it requires to learn everything we can about things. And to do all of that, we need to discard the crutches of social media.

Don’t get me wrong. I am as big a fan of social media today as I have always been. But I also know that we’ve turned it into a short-cut to judgment. All these people who beat their chests about being free-thinkers who reject the conditioning of traditional media are delusional – they’re simply swapping conditioning from one source for conditioning from another. That isn’t free-thinking. That’s laziness.

And that’s the best reason for still bothering with Facebook.

It isn’t broken. It’s simply unrecognisable right now, but it is still an invaluable tool for sharing information and building up knowledge. All it needs is for its users to quit being so caught up in the convenience it brings that they forget to think for themselves.

 

 

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