Technology is amazing. In my life, I’ve seen the advancement of personal communications at a pace and to a degree that I would never have guessed was possible within my own life. I scoffed at the people who told me when I was a teen that television would be replaced by videos streamed on the computer. That was incomprehensible to me, since the internet was so limited as a resource then. I still remember having someone from the city (Buffalo) come out to do a demonstration of the internet at my rural school. They showed us ERIC and we were supposed to be amazed. Given that I was young, I didn’t recognize the potential of a database that would index academic articles, and the platform was extremely limited in comparison to contemporary tools.
Fast forward a few decades and now we are surrounded by a sea of digital influences. I read most of my news online and the news that I do read often depends on the people I follow on social media. I too rarely actually go to the landing page of any website, including those sites whose content I regularly consume.
However, since I get the majority of my content through social media, that makes me vulnerable to manipulations in the algorithms. This is because, in order to keep us addicted to their content, social media platforms distort the way information is displayed on their pages. There are complex calculations running in the background to ensure that you see your cousin’s pregnancy announcement when it pops up, but only get one link to that article that everyone is reading. Also, if they think you will be offended by that popular article, they might just not show it to you.
There is no question that the social media platforms are manipulating the content that gets displayed. That, at some level, might be considered tolerable (since they own the platform) and some might believe it is relatively benign (I do not). But there is a deeper problem: the manipulation of algorithms by people that want to do us harm.
In a multipart series, Destin Sandlin of Smarter Every Day has researched the manipulation of Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube by bots and bad guys. I’m linking here to the series, with a brief synopsis of each video, because I believe that this is content worth sharing and considering as we learn how to live within our present digital culture.
The Art of Digital War
Because of his former day job, which involved working alongside the military on weapons systems, Sandlin was afforded a unique opportunity to engage some experts on the future of war and how cyber warfare will play into the way that wars will be fought or avoided in the coming decades. This video is a key part of understanding why the manipulation of social media feeds is worth the money and time invested in it.
Manipulating the Big Three Platforms
Some of these videos are a little long, but I found them very engaging. What is most helpful is that Sandlin was given access to experts from YouTube, Twitter, and Facebook who are trying to combat the rise of bots and overtly hostile actions. I have my own concerns about how our digital overlords are using their self-granted, self-regulated powers, but it is worth seeing how the algorithms are being manipulated to better understand the world in which we live.
The Problem with Your Newsfeed
Although this video was released before the three-part series on the manipulation of particular platforms, but it provides a very helpful guide to being a better digital citizen. Sandlin talks to someone who works through a process of validating information before sharing it, and tries to teach us to do the same. If we all followed this sort of process, instead of simply sharing something that made us feel the right way, then false information would not be disseminated so regularly.
Sandlin also recaps why carefully parsing any links that you might share is so vitally important, because so much of the contemporary divisiveness and viral disruption of communities depends on false, or at least biased, information getting out into the main stream very quickly.
I’m writing on a website that has no paper counterpart, so obviously I’m not ready to step out of the digital world. A lot of the views for this website come through social media sharing and from search engines, so it isn’t in my interests to jump ship just yet.
However, we really do need to think about how the new information economy is shaping how we learn, see, and understand the world around us. We need to recognize that even more than the biased, but more benign forms of censorship and self-promotion inherent in commercial media, the rise of the portability of digital tools makes it easy for a relatively small, hostile actor to significantly influence the course of societal debate.
Being a good citizen in a digital world is part of being a good neighbor. Part of being a good neighbor is learning how the bad guys work (and the not-so-bad guys that are just as manipulative) so that we can resist unhelpful misinformation and reinterpretation in a rapidly changing environment.