If I say that social media aided Donald Trump’s election, you might think of fake news on Facebook. But even if Facebook fixes the algorithms that elevate phony stories, there’s something else going on: social media represents the ultimate ascendance of television over other media.
I’ve been warning about this since November 2014, when I was freed from six years of incarceration in Tehran, a punishment I received for my online activism in Iran. Before I went to prison, I blogged frequently on what I now call the open Web: it was decentralized, text-centered, and abundant with hyperlinks to source material and rich background. It nurtured varying opinions. It was related to the world of books.
Then for six years I got disconnected; when I left prison and came back online, I was confronted by a brave new world. Facebook and Twitter had replaced blogging and had made the Internet like TV: centralized and image-centered, with content embedded in pictures, without links.
Like TV it now increasingly entertains us, and even more so than television it amplifies our existing beliefs and habits. It makes us feel more than think, and it comforts more than challenges. The result is a deeply fragmented society, driven by emotions, and radicalized by lack of contact and challenge from outside. This is why Oxford Dictionaries designated “post-truth” as the word of 2016: an adjective “relating to circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than emotional appeals.”
Neil Postman provided some clues about this in his illuminating 1985 book, Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business. The media scholar at New York University saw then how television transformed public discourse into an exchange of volatile emotions that are usually mistaken by pollsters as opinion. One of the scariest outcomes of this transition, Postman wrote, is that television essentially turns all news into disinformation. “Disinformation does not mean false information. It means misleading information—misplaced, irrelevant, fragmented or superficial information—information that creates the illusion of knowing something but which in fact leads one away from knowing … The problem is not that television presents us with entertaining subject matter but that all subject matter is presented as entertaining.” (Emphasis added.) And, Postman argued, when news is constructed as a form of entertainment, it inevitably loses its function for a healthy democracy. “I am saying something far more serious than that we are being deprived of authentic information. I am saying we are losing our sense of what it means to be well informed. Ignorance is always correctable. But what shall we do if we take ignorance to be knowledge?”
The problem with today’s Internet, driven less by text and hypertext (hyperlink-enriched text), is that it not only shares many of TV’s ills but also creates new ones. The difference between traditional television and the form of TV that has reincarnated as social media is that the latter is a personalized medium. Traditional television still entails some degree of surprise. What you see on television news is still picked by human curators, and even though it must be entertaining to qualify as worthy of expensive production, it is still likely to challenge some of our opinions (emotions, that is).
Social media, in contrast, uses algorithms to encourage comfort and complaisance, since its entire business model is built upon maximizing the time users spend inside of it. Who would like to hang around in a place where everyone seems to be negative, mean, and disapproving? The outcome is a proliferation of emotions, a radicalization of those emotions, and a fragmented society. This is way more dangerous for the idea of democracy founded on the notion of informed participation.
Now what can be done? Certainly the explanation for Trump’s rise cannot be reduced to a technology- or media-centered argument. The phenomenon is rooted in more than that; media or technology cannot create; they can merely twist, divert, or disrupt. Without the growing inequality, shrinking middle class, jobs threatened by globalization, etc. there would be no Trump or Berlusconi or Brexit. But we need to stop thinking that any evolution of technology is natural and inevitable and therefore good. For one thing, we need more text than videos in order to remain rational animals. Typography, as Postman describes, is in essence much more capable of communicating complex messages that provoke thinking. This means we should write and read more, link more often, and watch less television and fewer videos—and spend less time on Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube.
If we can’t resist, and if algorithms don’t give us different or opposing views, we should actively try to be exposed to them. We can follow people or pages who are not suggested to us by searching for related keywords. We can also confuse their algorithms by liking what we dislike, so they produce a more diverse stream. We can encourage social media to disclose some aspects of their algorithms and make them customizable, and let us react to posts with our minds rather than hearts: we need agree/disagree or trust/suspect buttons, instead of like/dislike.
Our habits and our emotions are killing us and our planet. Let’s resist their lethal appeal.