As the World Wide Web grows, uncensored and unfiltered information becomes more accessible even to the most isolated and censored parts of the world. This should contribute to learning and education in masses, as well as promote open-mindedness and tolerance, right? Well… there seems to be another side to this.
The social media machines (Facebook, YouTube, and the like), learning from our emotional responses, can have a completely opposite effect, fueling bigotry and prejudice. They thrive on our confirmation bias and effectively exploit our limbic system , promoting bias and shutting down reasoning in many cases.
To use Facebook as an example, its algorithm works by prioritizing posts that can display on its News Feed, based on how likely a user will have a positive reaction to a given post. The goal is to “show stories that matter to users.” Without overanalyzing the details, the gist is that positive comments, replies, likes, and shares define what matters to a user, and are therefore what make it into the feed. In short, if you like something, you will get more of it, regardless of its quality. And it snowballs…
The results of having platforms that allow not only publishing all kinds of scandalous falsehoods, but that also have an effective mechanism of promoting them through such algorithms, have been very well articulated by the creator of Ali G and Borat, Sacha Baron Cohen. In his speech to the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), the comedian criticized “the greatest propaganda machine in history” (i.e., social media giants) and offered how to fix it.
“ There is such a thing as objective truth,” said Cohen. “Facts do exist. And if these internet companies really want to make a difference, they should hire enough monitors to actually monitor, work closely with groups like the ADL and the NAACP, insist on facts and purge these lies and conspiracies from their platforms.”
But where is that line in between freedom of speech and spreading harmful lies and ideas? What is the right balance in between freedom of expression and censorship? More questions than answers here, in my opinion, but those questions made me rethink some of my own preconceived notions about the subject.
Cohen pointed out that freedom of speech is not the same as freedom of reach. “I believe that it’s time for a fundamental rethink of social media and how it spreads hate, conspiracies and lies,” he said. “Voltaire was right. Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities — and social media lets authoritarians push absurdities to billions of people.”
On Facebook’s decision to stick to its position of allowing politicians to pay it to spread lying, hateful propaganda, Cohen also commented: “Under this twisted logic, if Facebook were around in the 1930s it would have allowed Hitler to post 30-second ads on his solution to the ‘Jewish problem.’”
Are we heading toward a digital version of the Dark Ages? Maybe… What seems to be the case is that human emotions and biases are making their way into the digital realm of the World Wide Web, and we need to deal with that sooner rather than later.
This article appears in the January 2020 version of Critical Links.