Editor’s note: This commentary is by Caleb Magoon, a business owner and community leader from Hyde Park who serves on the state board of the Main Street Alliance.
One of the greatest dangers currently facing American democracy is social media. Just like most Americans, I enjoy keeping up with family and friends through posts and photos. This, the good of social media, is rapidly being overshadowed by the dangers. Our increasing dependence on obtaining information and news from these sources has steadily increased the divisions and partisanship already present in our country.
A few things stand out about the stranglehold social media has on American culture. First is the sheer number of people that use it with regularity and depend on it for information. Second, is how easily any company or organization can purchase your attention and fill your feed with information aimed at influencing you. Last, is the ironic isolation we all experience in social media; we all too easily confine ourselves in echo-chamber-like silos that perpetually reinforce our own biases by keeping us away from diverse viewpoints.
Currently two-thirds of Americans get much of their news from social media. We’re regularly exposing ourselves to a considerable amount of information that is paid for by anyone who wants to pony up. Social media has become a marketing person’s dream — targeting either big audiences or specific demographics. Companies can buy your web-browsing and purchasing histories, target you based on you interests or biases, and work to influence you with whatever information they then pay to put in front of your eyes.
As a businessman, I can use my social media accounts to present any message I see fit to the masses. The more I pay, the more people I can reach. As you can imagine, you need not worry about my attempts to lure you into buying a new snowboard. The real danger is that those will mal-intents whose goal is to use what they already know about you to influence you. Lobbyists, special interest groups, and yes, even the Russians — they all want to influence you.
Their goal is often to play on your fears, biases and preconceived notions to sway you to their viewpoint or simply against their enemies. Recent events, coupled with the political climate in the United States seem to suggest it’s working. We’re being influenced into deepening our ideology and separating ourselves from those with differing opinions. What we read online is increasingly propaganda, opinion, or flashy issue advocacy and not at all news. If they suspect you’re in a particular camp, they will push more propaganda on you to increase your support of that opinion and deepen your distrust and disdain for the “other side.”
You might ask why this is being done? Well, the political parties simply want to hold on to power at any cost. What better way than to make sure you hate the enemy? Russia’s motive appears to be aimed at simply creating chaos in America. Any expert on Russia will tell you that the more trouble we have at home, the less we pay attention to global matters. Thus, we lose power and influence on the international stage.
Sure, corporations and foreign powers paying to influence us is a scary idea. But just as scary is the idea that social media is increasing our differences and divisions without anyone paying for it at all.
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Social media represents a system where we cultivate our influences. We’ve created silos and surrounded ourselves with like-minded people and information simply based on who and what we “like.” When someone posts something that we don’t agree with, we simply hit the “unfollow” button.
We all have an uncle or cousin whose politics and opinions differ from our own. Through holidays and family gatherings, we endure the opinions they assert. However, proximity forces us to listen to what that person is saying, and often, we find at least one issue on which we agree. Not so with social media — we simply tune out adverse opinions because all it takes is a single click or the choice to roll our eyes and keep scrolling.
This is the danger of our social lives migrating online. As your silo becomes more closed, your influence narrows and so does your viewpoint.
Unfortunately, a recurring event is happening online to many of us, our friends and family. Someone puts out a strong opinion clearly influenced by the myriad of propaganda clearly in their feed (and often yours too). Said propaganda has been designed to elicit this response and as other like-minded people repost, like and respond, the propaganda quickly becomes “truth” and not just opinion. The opinion likely plays on a bias already held by the target audience and they become more entrenched in the viewpoint despite that the position may be contrary to their own self-interest. As facts become irrelevant, everyone feels entitled to his or her own personal truth. As these “truths” reverberate through the social media echo chamber, they become incontrovertible “alternative facts.”
Opinions divorced from facts and reality are dangerous and the holders of such opinions might make better choices if presented with better information. But social media rarely lends itself to any kind of nuanced discourse. Headlines, images, and short videos that grab you are all that matters in the online world.
How can we possibly slow this runaway train?
To combat it, we must all be vigilant. We need to vet and think critically about the information we take in. If we choose to post something or comment, we must be extra careful to use reliable sources and avoid those posts with salacious headlines or images clearly created to cause controversy or incite division.
Of course, we must un-silo ourselves and keep listening to that crazy uncle we can’t stand because his opinions do matter. Lastly and most importantly, we must teach the young people who have access to social media how to analyze, interpret, and fact check the information they absorb.
Social media is one of the reasons our country is experiencing unprecedented partisanship, division and turmoil. Yes, some blame can be placed on Twitter and Facebook and they are finally starting to work to address some of these issues. But until those mediums have true transparency, we must always ask — who stands to benefit from these ideas being propagated and what are their true motives? The bottom line is that the buck stops with each of us individually. The future of our democracy depends on personal responsibility and our individual and cultural ability to discern fact from opinion and to remain open to all opinions — especially the ones we don’t like.