The Social Media Silo Situation

The year is 2016. The place, Facebook. A 30-something man is scrolling through his newsfeed when he sees the inflammatory headline of a news article bashing the presidential candidate he supports. Angrily, the man glances up to see who posted the article, hesitates momentarily, and then “unfriends” the “friend” he has not seen since high school.

Is the man right to remove the offending presence? After all, the article was clearly biased, and discussing politics over social media never changes anyone’s mind, right?

.. The idea of social media echo chambers has garnered much attention lately. The concept of “confirmation bias” — the instinct to seek information that supports a current belief or conviction — has long been established in the world of science, and is something to be avoided whenever searching for truth. But in social media, this bias is propagated simply by reading, liking, and sharing content that acts to support those convictions we already hold, while avoiding content that challenges our beliefs. Essentially, we begin to isolate ourselves from those opposing opinions until we’re surrounded with people who agree with us.

.. “That’s a problem for Christians,” Goforth continues, “It’s like I want the simplistic kind of thing. Keep me out of the grays. But my view is, the grays are where the interesting things are, and it’s also where God can do things. When you are uncertain and when things are confusing you turn to God. So it’s an opportunity for Him to work in our lives.”

But it doesn’t stop there. In today’s age of data tracking, each like or click provides search engines and social media sites with information about the kinds of things we like and then works to provide us with more of the same, further insulating us from news or opinions we don’t want to see.

The theory is we become stuck in a feedback loop, liberated from the uncomfortable experience of confronting ideas or beliefs that oppose or challenge our own. And the theory is true, if only to an extent.

.. The researchers concluded that, “Unlike news, where there is solid evidence that people seek out ideologically consistent viewpoints, social media functions differently, perhaps driven by different motivations for use,” they wrote. “[Social media users] may come to learn that their friends don’t agree with them politically but recognize that disagreement isn’t a deal breaker, hence fostering some attenuation of dislike for people we disagree with.”

This recognition — that political views don’t have to make or break a relationship — is a great example of embracing “the grays,” that Goforth referred to. It requires inhabiting a space of tension, holding firmly to that view we profess, while also valuing the human being across from us enough to be drawn into a conversation, rather than walling ourselves off from the “opposition.”

If that mutual respect is demonstrated, social media can be used as a tool to foster community. Of course, if the subject of our ire continuously perpetuates a disregard for the value of others, perhaps engaging that individual over social media will prove fruitless, in which case the unfollow or unfriend options become reasonable.

However, in most instances, what we get out of social media is what we put in. Therefore, if used intentionally, it can prove to create opportunities to genuinely engage with others. Sending a heartfelt message, rather than a quippy reply to a challenging post, demonstrates a willingness to connect beyond a public fray. Yes, this requires more effort, but the payoff is real relationships in which God can move.

By turning away from what’s easiest and stepping into the gray areas, the unknown, where no one person has everything right, we allow God to work in our lives and mold us into the people He created us to be — people who are humble and open, and who acknowledge the inherent value of others.

Twitter’s Flawed Solution to Political Polarization

On social media, encountering opposing views can make people become even more wedded to their own.

.. Jack Dorsey, repeatedly denied that Twitter’s algorithms are biased against conservative voices. His denials echoed recent statements he has made about the importance of exposing people to opposing political views. Indeed, he announced last month that Twitter was experimenting with new features that would actively expose people to such views.
Mr. Dorsey’s goal of reducing political polarization is commendable. But his proposed solution — disrupting our social media “echo chambers” — may actually make things worse. Forcing Twitter users to encounter political views they disagree with, my research shows, can make them become even more wedded to their own.
.. Scholars were once optimistic that social media could increase bipartisan dialogue by allowing virtually anyone to engage in public debate about politics. Yet mounting evidence suggests that Facebook and Twitter have allowed Republicans and Democrats to further segregate themselves.
.. Then we paid half of them to follow for one month a bot we created that retweeted messages from elected officials and other opinion leaders from the other political party.
.. Instead of reducing political polarization, being exposed to opposing ideas increased it. Republicans who followed a Democratic bot for one month expressed social policy views that were substantially more conservative at the conclusion of the study.
.. Why did some social media users’ political views become more entrenched after we disrupted their echo chambers? One possibility is the structure of Twitter itself. Social psychologists have long argued that positive, intimate contact between members of rival groups across an extended period can produce compromise. But that is not what Twitter offers. Its character limits — combined with the anonymous, spontaneous nature of so many exchanges on the platform — simply may not be conducive to mutual understanding.
.. a first step should be for Twitter to experiment with removing its character limits. Allowing people to voice their opinions in detail will not improve the civility of discourse by itself, but it may facilitate a better competition of ideas and increase the possibility for Democrats and Republicans to understand one another.
.. Twitter should not force its users to view messages from a political party they oppose. Instead, it should create an alert system that makes people aware when they are being exposed predominantly to one point of view. The most pernicious effect of social media echo chambers may be that most people are unaware of how much their political views are influenced by selective exposure to information.

Finally, if Twitter is resolved to expose users to opposing political views, it should focus on doing so with specific issues. Republican and Democratic Twitter users appear unready to have broad conversations about politics. But breaking up the echo chambers that prevent cross-party discussion about market-based solutions to climate change, for example, might be more successful.

Donald Trump Jr., Sarah Huckabee Sanders and the chain-email presidency

Donald Trump Jr. the next day tweeted a picture of his 4-year-old daughter in a Halloween costume, ostensibly to illustrate the downsides of alternative economic systems. “I’m going to take half of Chloe’s candy tonight & give it to some kid who sat at home. It’s never to [sic] early to teach her about socialism.”

.. The president appears to get all his news and policy advice from “Fox & Friends,” a morning show that traffics in unsubstantiated rumor and echo-chamber thinking. On Twitter, he retweets bogus crime statistics and memes from alt-right message boards.
.. We’re in the era of the chain-letter administration. 
.. Instead of justifying policy through facts and data (which are being deleted from government websites as we speak), the administration and its allies rely on viral stories and dubious parables to inform the public. And while allegory, anecdote and analogy can be useful in explaining complex policy issues, this administration uses them in all the worst ways. 
.. Except, that’s not socialism. The term has a specific meaning: government control of the means of production and of the distribution of goods and services. It’s not the same thing as coerced sharing.  
.. But the story conveniently elided both the mathematics of income distribution and Trump’s original promise that tax reform would focus on helping the middle class rather than the wealthy.
.. Trump Jr.’s socialism tweet is meant to darken the public perception of any sort of redistribution, associating it with stealing candy from babies rather than undergirding a functioning health insurance system or social-welfare programs to help the less fortunate.

Sanders’s beer story was less an explanation of how taxation works than an attempt to garner sympathy for the wealthy. The end goal is to persuade anyone listening in from the middle class not to grumble when the tax cut for those in higher brackets is larger than for them.

.. When all news is fake and all reporting is leaks and lies, people still need to be informed. That vacuum is filled by folk wisdom shared by family and friends, or rumors and information shortcuts circulated by those who seem as though they’re in the know.

Silicon Valley Can’t Destroy Democracy Without Our Help

But while Russian meddling is a serious problem, the current sentiment toward Silicon Valley borders on scapegoating. Facebook and Twitter are just a mirror, reflecting us. They reveal a society that is painfully divided, gullible to misinformation, dazzled by sensationalism, and willing to spread lies and promote hate. We don’t like this reflection, so we blame the mirror, painting ourselves as victims of Silicon Valley manipulation.

At the hearing, Senator Dianne Feinstein, Democrat of California, squarely blamed the tech companies for Russian interference. “You bear this responsibility,” she said. “You’ve created these platforms.”

But we, the users, are not innocent. Some of the Russian propaganda on social media was cribbed from content that was posted by Americans. Yes, social media helps propaganda spread farther and faster. But Facebook and Twitter didn’t force users to share misinformation. Are Americans so easily duped? Or more alarming, did they simply believe what they wanted to believe?

.. The real crisis is Americans’ inability or unwillingness to sift fact from fiction, a problem that is worsened by the mainstream media’s loss of credibility when it comes to setting the record straight.
.. Facebook’s algorithms may encourage echo chambers, but that’s because the company figured out what users want.
.. The real problem is that Americans don’t have a shared sense of reality.
.. A couple of years ago, I was part of a team that tried that very experiment. We ran a Silicon Valley start-up called Parlio, which was later acquired by Quora. Parlio aimed to be a social media platform for civil debate. But what we discovered was that people loved the idea of reasoned debate, then decided that those debates took too much time. Thoughtful content was also less likely to go viral, and many users are addicted to the sugar rush of virality. So while people liked the idea of eating their vegetables, they still gravitated to Twitter’s candy aisle.

Social media platforms magnify our bad habits, even encourage them, but they don’t create them. Silicon Valley isn’t destroying democracy — only we can do that.