Digital

Social Media Somnambulism

Are we increasingly becoming online zombies munching on information while disregarding its neutrality, authenticity and reliability?

Credit: magicatwork/Flickr CC BY 2.0

Credit: magicatwork/Flickr CC BY 2.0

The pen was mightier than the sword, in far simpler times when English novelist Edward Bulwer-Lytton coined his iconic adage. Today clicks are far mightier, and have the potential to drastically alter our understanding of the world around us. As news goes, where reliance was once placed on newsprint, that privilege is increasingly being afforded to stories on social media feeds. Facebook has surpassed Google as a top referral source for major publishers online, and in India, with the largest number of Facebook users worldwide, too little is being written and read about the dangers of our subconscious consumption of information on social media.

Three big problems with doing so revolve around content quality, algorithmic reinforcement, and the multiplier effect of curated content. These tie in to each other to create the Frankenstein’s monster that festers inside our brains, changing the way we process, and the outcomes that leads us to. 

Pandering is a core value of the social media business model today, and sadly something even ‘legitimate’ news media is getting inextricably mixed up in. Clicks sell, but the balance and authenticity of what is being clicked on is becoming less important every day. The heady mix of the Fear Of Missing Out and creating the perfect clickbait leaves little room for information to be analysed, sources chased down and facts verified, before the so called news is published.In India, these happenings are aplenty.

The accidental death of a student swept away by waves, wrongly and widely reported as the deadly antics of a reckless selfie chaser is one recent example. Elsewhere, celebrities have been declared dead (Dilip Kumar twice), with an ensuing outpouring of grief only to find that they are alive and (mostly) well. Katherine Viner extensively discusses the consequences of this shift in the way news is consumed online today, and notes how “we careen from outrage to outrage, but forget each one very quickly: it’s doomsday every afternoon.

As intermediaries, social media platforms may well be enabling the propagation of falsehood, but have little liability, and may be actively compounding the problem. There is an immense amount of time, money and effort being put into determining what goes where and why. The problem is, the people all this revolves around don’t necessarily know it, or the extent to which they’re being analysed and controlled.The Wall Street Journal recently published a fascinating infographic (based on Facebook’s own research) to show different possible news feeds, with sharply contrasting results.

Ever noticed how our noticing and reliance on something on social media tends to depend on the number of likes or followers the post or the source sharing it might have? Facebook’s stated, dumbed down version of how your news feed works confirms this.

And they’re not alone. Twitter has taken the first steps towards a somewhat similar methodology. In both instances, what you’re likely to end up seeing, and hence believing, is what has been algorithmically tailored to present itself in front of you.

Where things slip through the cracks in the machine, human intervention is not far away. Facebook, it was recently reported, censored posts and accounts discussing the violence in Indian administered Kashmir, in some instances, admittedly, ‘in error’. Not only then, is how information is presented controlled, but what information has the possibility of being presented as well.

Nicholas Carrin The Shallows tells us how “it’s not just that we tend to use the Net regularly, even obsessively. It’s that the Net delivers precisely the kind of sensory and cognitive stimuli – repetitive, intensive, interactive, addictive – that have been shown to result in strong and rapid alterations in brain circuits and functions.” When we mix chemicals X and Y above, we get the effect the constant reinforcement of a particular angle on a story has on our beliefs. Lessons from the pied piper clearly forgotten, apost, a picture, an unchecked fact, becomes the basis for forming and firming a view and lo and behold, the lucky ones go viral.

For people to be able to shape their views, albeit differing views, fairy, they must be presented with a set of facts to mould into independent opinion. Where those very facts are either works of fiction entirely, or presented in such a light that it’s impossible to make anything of them other than what the person sharing them intends, we throw a spanner in the works of reason.

The unprecedented power that social media wields today must be acknowledged, so that its impact, good and bad, can be understood. At the end of the day, easy as it is to put the blame on Facebook and commercial journalism, there is a supply because there is an overwhelming demand for information. The power to reclaim the truth then, also lies with us, the readers. Try not to rely exclusively on social media for your daily dose of ‘news’, think twice before hitting that share button, look beyond the obvious and fact-check, wherever you can. In a time where the old guard, the mainstream news media is becoming less reliable and responsible every day, this may well be the path to cleaner, leaner news.

The author is a corporate lawyer working in New Delhi. Views shared are personal.

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