Filter bubbles are just the half of it

I’ve had trouble putting my worries into words post-US election. Here’s my best attempt.

I have two degrees. Each was highly self-directed by design. And in each case, I chose a topic I viewed as fascinating but perhaps peripherally relevant to my future professional goals.

My undergraduate degree, obtained at a department that required you to invent your own major, was on “Media, Technology, and Social Action”. I studied the way that corporations, media institutions, and government evolved in the US in tandem with the evolution of technology. In my thesis (and associated TEDx talk), I posited that we were moving toward an attention-driven political atmosphere in which those who could attract attention would wield greater power than traditional players, regardless of their level of qualification. I actually was instructed to tone down the “negativity” in my initial proposed talk, as I was basically warning people about the phenomenal risk we faced.

My master’s was broadly focused on the research of Internet phenomena. My focus was on persuasion and credibility in online contexts. My thesis (which is being published in a 2017 textbook on the topic) posited that the cues we view as highly credible vary depending on whether the situation is perceived as a crisis and, further, that the cues we elevate in times of crisis aren’t aligned with the types of evidence-based checks we’d use in normal situations – that we view first person accounts as being more credible in a crisis, for instance, regardless of whether proof is provided about the person actually being present at or witness to the event.

It has been nothing short of horrifying to see all of this thinking be reinforced this year, especially as someone who’d previously proposed studying this at a PhD level. And as much as I’ve been vaguely heartened by increased awareness of filter bubbles and fake news, I’ve been frustrated beyond belief – because these things are just the very surface of our problems.

Yes, we’re increasingly unwittingly insulating ourselves in echo-chambers of agreement. Yes, false information is being spread under a credible guise. Neither of these problems are inherently new (see: friends; and, gossip), though they are certainly amplified in terrifying ways by digital media. They are problems that need addressing, ABSOLUTELY, but they are components of a more complex reality.

As I see it, some of our more meta-problems can be discussed broadly as the following:

  1. The language and rhetoric we employ;
  2. Our tolerance for pain vs. distraction;
  3. Our reification of media, writ large; and
  4. Our ability to manage complexity

These overlap, but broadly speak to our more pernicious problems. I’ll break each of these down.

  1. The language and rhetoric we employ

Anyone working in media has heard the term “clickbait”. Even non-media people are likely familiar with it: that all-too-tempting headline that gets you to click through, typically to inane, manufactured, or stolen content. Think early Buzzfeed (I think I even cited them in my undergrad thesis when talking about the second wave of Yellow Journalism, but that’s neither here nor there).  We are attracted to this way of speaking in part because of its sensationalism, but that very sensationalism often results in either oversimplification or misrepresentation.

I believe this tone of voice is also attractive because of its projection of absolute certainty, especially when in confirms our existing beliefs. I would bet that our susceptibility to strident and ideologically-consistent language is directly correlated with our perception of general uncertainty, rising in tandem. The trouble with this is that when we are less certain, we shouldn’t use this strident tone – how could we? But we do, and by “we” I mean media as well as everyday people. It is a problem, no matter who the author is.

  1. Our tolerance for pain vs. distraction

This is not a new thought: that mankind, given the choice between a fun thing and a difficult thing, will choose the fun thing. Consider what happens when we add the variable of experienced distress. When one, either through empathy or through direct contact, can interact with a difficult, painful reality, I think that one feels more inclined to pay attention to it, even over fun things (I’m source-free here, but can acquire one if needed).

I’d posit that our ability to focus on painful truths, as opposed to bread and circuses, is partly governed by our social proximity to said truths as well as our empathy toward them. So it’s not only our awareness of certain issues and injustices that dictates our opinions, but our experiences of them. And that awareness, combined with the reinforcement of our experience, directly impacts our willingness to parse difficult issues as opposed to seek a loud, simple “solution” or distraction.

  1. Our reification of media, writ large.

This is the trickiest one. For centuries, language and written word have been semi-accessible but fairly trustworthy communication devices. Printed and broadcast media then took language and created “facts.” Did these represent all people equally? No, never. Has any technology been particularly egalitarian? No, never – until, hold on, the Internet. While not really equalising nor truly egalitarian, Web 2.0 has allowed more people to enter the forum of an increasingly “traditional” media to express their views.

This is great! Except when you take into account basic game theory, which reinforces the idea that those who view themselves as most disenfranchised will make most fervent use of a new, accessible medium. There are norms within the world of journalism – fact checking, running stories only when certain of events – that are already being violated by mainstream media and are completely disregarded by new media actors. Our ability to critically react to said actors has not evolved quickly enough, as too many of us regard “Googling” something the equivalent to locating basic human truths. That those who violate journalistic norms are incentivized to spread their message, whatever it takes, and validated by a history of perceived or genuine disenfranchisement makes the  situation trickier to address.

Add to this the current threat to net neutrality (in short, a lack of information prioritization that makes sites and information equally accessible), and you understand the tenuousness of our situation: if this is violated, our basic assumptions about digital information must go up in flames. We impose a pay-to-play structure over a medium we’re all trained to believe is impartial (even though it already isn’t); it practically goes without saying that this is a fucking disaster.

  1. Our ability to manage complexity

This one is the worst, because it’s a fundamental human problem that in one way or another is a component in every problem we face. Though there is variation on an individual level (influenced both by intellect and temperament), people are generally really bad with complexity. We love things simple. Simple is easier to do and easier to understand. Unfortunately, life is not simple. Would that it were.

As technology has increased our access to people, information, and cultures, it has also increased our everyday complexity. This exists in many forms, the most commonly referenced one being information overload. But there is another type of complexity that I think people find more difficult to swallow: a multiplicity of perspectives that are now voiced and accessible.

For many people, the internet has been a platform to express previously stifled viewpoints, tackling issues of inequality and discrimination. What many people don’t think about is the experience of being on the other side of this, suddenly confronted with a multitude of injustices that you unwittingly cause or else benefit from. The cognitive dissonance engendered by this is unbearable for a huge number of people who must wrestle with the notion that they are “bad guys,” however fundamentally good they may actually be.

What’s our response to all of this? Simplification, of course, even at the expense of accuracy. It is the basis of populism and a menace to be combated as ferociously as we can muster. The trouble is, of course, how.

Our distaste for complexity is by far the most troubling component of this equation, because in addition to causing us to oversimplify problems, it can result in us simply tuning out. It is the reason why most people who started to read this blog post won’t actually read this sentence – too much to take in.

So what do we do about all of this? That’s what I’m going to be spending the coming weeks, months, probably even years trying to figure out. As a starting point, I can suggest the following:

  1. Don’t reward clickbait with your clicks.
  2. Investigate anything that sounds sensational.
  3. Always read beyond the headline.
  4. Figure out context before casting judgment.
  5. Understand how search engines work and how that impacts what you get served.
  6. Fight your fucking hardest to maintain net neutrality.
  7. Embrace uncertainty and empathy.
  8. Don’t give in to distraction and dumb culture.
  9. Seek out and listen to the painful truths of others.
  10. Encourage all of the above in others.

Does that sound like a lot of work? Hell yeah! But it’s what we’ve got to do if we want to make our world function. We are on the brink of – some might say already immersed in – an information war, and we’ve got to do all we can to get out on the other side intact.

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