United States of Confusion: A Mess Made by Social Media

statute of liberty in dense fog

United States of Confusion: A Mess Made by Social Media

The closeness of the 2020 US election, and the level of vitriol, is unsurprising.

Think about it. Never in history has a private company had so much power over so many people.

In the United States, divisions are at a level where members of the same family are at loggerheads where there is a disparity of worldview. So impassioned are beliefs, even when they are baseless.

Like rats in a maze, Facebook has given us echo chambers with an addictive design.

The term echo chamber is heavily used to describe social media, where “people are able to seek out information that reinforces their existing views, potentially as an unconscious exercise of confirmation bias.” (Wikipedia)

Jaron Lanier, a computer scientist and futurist, labels social media as “behaviour manipulation empires” to John Thornhill of the Financial Times.



Lanier draws an analogy with Wikipedia, the online encyclopaedia website. 

Imagine if Wikipedia showed something different for every person, he suggests in The Social Dilemma, a Netflix documentary.

 The information contained in Facebook Newsfeed operates in this way. It is what you want to see.


Silos with No Crossover

Fake news spreads six times faster than real news, says Aza Raskin in the Social Dilemma.

You know capitalism is broken when false news makes more money than real information. The machine exists only to make money, not to be an arbiter of truth or shoulder any responsibility for unity or harmony.

Cathy O’Neil, a data scientist, worked in finance on Wall Street and felt disgusted by the use of math algorithms to cause destruction to so many people’s lives during the financial crisis that began in 2008. She sees the same manipulation happening with social media.

She told The Guardian, “People keep suggesting that democracy is alive and well because we have two parties…Democracy is more than a two-party system. It’s an informed public and that’s what’s at risk.” 

Her book Weapons of Math Destruction, O’Neil describes how maths are seen as being unbiased and trustworthy.

In fact, they are the result of embedded opinion. This causes self-perpetuating discrimination and widening of inequality.

Free Speech and False Information — Uncomfortable Bedfellows

In the United States, Facebook is exempt from liability for the content that is published on its platforms, under the First Amendment Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act.

Other nations can set rules. Germany can fine platforms $60 million for not taking down illegal content within 24 hours of being notified. 

In Myanmar, Facebook comes preinstalled on mobile phones, which used to be rarer than in North Korea. Ronan Lee of Queen Mary University in London, told The Economist ”it was common to find mobile phone users who did not understand that the internet existed beyond what was available to them.” The phrase for going online line paw tat tal is roughly equivalent to ‘active on Facebook’  

The reason Myanmar stands as a litmus test is the relative isolation from the wider internet. It is in the use of Facebook for hate speech and the genocide of Rohingyan Muslims that resulted.

A cultural anthropologist, Christina Fink, is interviewed in the same article. She says Facebook is the primary source of news for 2 out of 5 in Myanmar and they are highly susceptible to manipulation. She cites lack of critical thinking in school curricula as one reason fact and fiction can’t be easily distinguished.

Another reason she gives is that fear and anxiety is stoked by senior leaders as a means to enrich themselves. Minority groups are often targeted as the scapegoats.

It is interesting that Trump supporters and Biden supporters are so closely aligned with specific segments of the population. Women, Blacks, Latinos, highly educated, LGBT for Biden, White, mormons, farmers, evangelical Christians for Trump.

I don’t criticise anyone’s particular view, or their reason for having it.

I ask just to ask where is the organic cross-over?



True or False — The Machine Doesn’t Know or Care

The Social Dilemma posits the nefarious power of social media may well result in civil war. So far, the documentary explores, the levels of self-harm and suicide in the 10 to 14 year age group has increased by 151% along a time line that coincides with the rise of social media.

Social media tells you what you want to hear. Whether that is climate change is a hoax or Donald Trump is a hero, you accept the world that is presented to you.

The problem is that the view is presented with such voracity. Facebook is a machine that is learning. It does not have the power to know what is true and what is not true.

Facebook is a tool of personalised propaganda never seen before in history. From real events now and in the recent past, it is bringing out the worst in humanity.

This is how civilizations end.


How do we Unravel the Mess?

Surely it is a basic tenet of society — every society — that we listen to each other and seek first to understand. Even if we don’t agree.

Current social media makes this impossible. The addictive features used by poker machines are built to engage an audience. To shock, horror, appall, and most of all, to keep you scrolling.

Here are some suggestions.

What Individuals

Unplug, follow diverse viewpoints, and confuse the algorithm. 

Remember that every single word you have ever typed, and action you have ever performed (from engagements) will be used to pigeonhole you by interest, attitude, behaviour, and predictability of you engaging with other content, including advertising. 

Lookalike audiences match you (psychographically and behaviourally). The targeting gets more and more refined the more you engage. 

What Nations and Groups Can Do

  • Nations can and should set their own rules around what is acceptable, such as Germany and Europe.
  • A non-government social media council should be the arbiters of truth and fiction, not social media companies themselves. They can’t do it. They’ve demonstrated they are unable.
  • People own their own data and rent it to platforms for monetisation. Users receive a payment. As you would for market research or being a mystery shopper.
  • Introduce international Interoperability standards (such as that for online courses). That way users can freely switch between platforms and take their own data.
  • Users could choose the rule setting for newsfeeds such as ‘neutral’ to avoid inflammatory, hyped-up posts.
  • Strong anti-competitive measures such as uncoupling Googles Advertising business and Search business, as well as Facebook’s Ad business and social network.  Encourage competition by penalising the monopolistic nature of big tech.

These measures are likely to take some time. Do we have it? 

Hopefully, it won’t take a civil war to convince law and policymakers that intervention is required.