By Dr Ian Clarke
Today many people get their news through social media, not from mainstream press and television. Anyone can post on social media so it could be said to be the direct voice of the people, which is why Donald Trump likes Twitter. When he became President he refused to stop tweeting because he had found the means to express his views unfiltered to his support base.
Posts on social media do not pass through an editorial process, though extremely bigoted or racist views may be taken down. On social media one cannot be sure that the facts one receives are true. I first heard of the death of Robert Mugabe on social media, which was true; I also heard of the death of a friend on social media. But when I expressed my condolences I got a message informing me that he was not yet dead. Oops – as the saying goes ‘Reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated’.
Mainstream journalism should apply professional standards, both in terms of fact checking and editing, and if the facts are wrong the reader can seek redress against the publication. Social media has no filters and can act as a megaphone amplifying anyone’s views, even if they are inaccurate, or crackpot.
What people must understand about Facebook (and Google) is that your posts, likes and clicks are being constantly analyzed, and you are are being categorized and targeted with individualized advertising. The Russians used Facebook to manipulate the American election and Dominic Cummings swung the British Brexit vote in favour of ‘Leave’ through clever use of social media.
In both cases they targeted those voters in key constituencies who could be influenced. The analysis of a person’s political preferences was carried out through Facebook and Cambridge Analytica. It was easy to find those who were committed Republicans or Democrats, or those who were definite remainers or leavers. Such voters were ignored, since they had already made up their minds, and it was the undecided who were targeted. Messages demonizing Hilary Clinton or playing on voters’ fears and biases were sent out.
Stories were made up to corroborate and ‘prove’ their suspicions. Social media was used to divide people and incite them to hate other groups of people, anything that worked in favour of voting for Donald Trump, who portrayed himself as the one who understood their issues and would ‘make America Great again’.
Social media sets up amplifying chambers in which people are divided into groups of like-minded people. Messages and posts within these groups reinforce their views making them more extreme. Facebook is not producing Mark Zuckerberg’s dream of a united global community, it is pushing people into silos and reinforcing divisions. The algorithms are designed to do this for more effective targeted advertising from which Facebook makes money.
We willingly give up our data to Facebook and Google, and they in turn analyze it so that they know our preferences, our sexual orientation, political views, academic abilities, or any other characteristic useful to them. It is getting to the point where Facebook and Google will know us better than we know ourselves and will start making decisions for us.
To some extent this is already happening: we are allowing them to make decisions when it is convenient. I made a journey to Kamuli last week, but I did not know the way. So I plugged the location into Google Maps and got a recommended route.
The female voice on my phone told me when to turn left, right or go straight on, and I arrived painlessly at my destination. I had surrendered my decision making to Google Maps. A few years ago this would not have been possible since Google Maps was not so well developed and I didn’t trust it. At that time my son took me on a motorbike expedition somewhere deep inside Mukono District.
He was already using Google Maps but it ended up taking us along a narrow path across a swamp where I had a close encounter with a cow, whose rope got tangled up with my motorbike. When I moved, the rope shortened and the cow got drawn in closer, until I was a few inches from its horns. The cow was not happy and neither was I. Luckily Sean looked back to see his father going head to head with an angry cow, and came back with a knife to cut the bond between us.
He later said his first instinct was to take a photo of this bizarre situation, but then he thought he had better rescue his father from being gored by a cow. Google Maps had misinterpreted the path for a road.
Little by little we are allowing ourselves to be manipulated by these huge tech companies and giving up more decision making to them, but does the convenience outweigh the risks?
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