Think about it: 1.49 billion people on average log onto Facebook daily; every second, on average, around 6,000 tweets are tweeted on Twitter; and since its inception, over 40 billion photographs have been posted on Instagram. We live in a world where we aren’t only consumers of information but creators as well, which gives us a misplaced sense of control. It is misplaced because we live today on social media in filter bubbles and echo chambers, and our experiences are dictated by algorithms. As we approach the end of the second decade of this century, social media and the Internet have drifted from their promise of closing distances and exposing us to the views of those who existed beyond our personal networks. Instead, we find ourselves to be more rigid versions of our former selves.
In the 1950s, a series of psychological experiments called the Asch Conformity Experiments was carried out by the social psychologist Solomon Asch, to determine the extent to which a person’s opinion is influenced by a group. Asch found through a series of trials that an individual was willing to go to the extent of giving a wrong answer just to conform to the majority view. The respondents gave wrong answers either because they did not want to be ridiculed or thought of as “peculiar”, or because they believed that the group was better informed than them. Although means of communication and engagement have evolved since the 1950s, the human instinct to fit in hasn’t changed. To some extent this also explains the impact of fake news online, which is said to contribute to a polarised society.
Fake news is an industry today and finds great resonance with people. Its rise corresponds with a growing distrust in the mainstream media. Fake news has now even slipped into traditional media outlets and is often circulated by prominent individuals. This has contributed to the echo chamber phenomenon. People seek “informed” opinions through filters only from people they trust and look for news that confirms their world view. This results in people cultivating rigid opinions of issues that they would have probably been more willing to discuss in the past.
Social media sites are more than willing to play abettors. Twitter, for example, will routinely prompt you to follow people who hold a viewpoint that is similar to yours. Social media creates and services needs, which could be the narcissistic impulses encouraged by Instagram or the strengthening of deep-rooted biases on Twitter and Facebook.
A study carried out by Aalto University, Finland, this year on increasing polarisation on social media found that factors like user homophily (users in a social system tend to bond more with ones who are similar to them than to ones who are dissimilar) and algorithmic filtering have created this cycle of enforcing and reinforcing belief systems and ensuring that we don’t open our minds to diverse opinions. The study suggests that algorithms must be created to identify trigger topics and find diverse opinions that might otherwise be kept out.
While the democratisation of discourse that social media has brought about is undeniable and most welcome, we are getting trapped in narrower world views that are seeping into not only voter behaviour but everyday personal interactions. This is something we must be alarmed about. Log in or log out, the world is a far more opinionated place today but it need not be a rigid one.
Advaita Kala is an author and columnist
The trending story on Twitter recently was about a woman whose engagement ring fell into a drain in Times Square in New York, just hours after her boyfriend proposed to her. The police department put out a tweet, which went viral. In less than 22 hours, the couple was traced and the ring was returned.
Those who blame social media for all ills say that it has made it possible for divisive and fake news to travel faster. But this story wouldn’t have been possible if social media had an inherent bias towards evil. Nor would the #MeToo stories have found an outlet. There are many stories of lost children being found, dogs being adopted, and money being raised for various causes on social media. Still, people love to say that social media is mainly responsible for the violent, regressive society of 2018. It is true that social media was used to garner support for a man who burnt a Muslim man on video in Rajasthan, but it was the same social media that was also used to raise funds for the parents of a child who was gang-raped and murdered in Kathua in Jammu and Kashmir. What does all of this say about social media? That it is only a tool.
It’s easy to blame technology because it is the new element in an old equation. The printing press was seen as trouble by the Ottomans. The speed at which books could be printed and distributed aroused suspicion. Ironically, the first Greek printing house set up in 1627 printed a booklet targeting Jews. Books were only a medium, just like social media. Banning books and blaming social media are results of the same flawed logic.
If social media is divisive, what about television? Many won’t rage against TV because the content is supposedly more controlled while everyone is a content creator on social media. But how are the news channels of today any less hateful than the average troll on social media? According to the BI-2018 survey, the number of individuals with access to TV has gone up to 835 million; smartphone penetration in the country is at around 300 million. The number of daily active users on WhatsApp is 200 million; on Facebook it is 194 million; and on Twitter it is 7.83 million. By all accounts, social media in India is still a niche phenomenon.
Currently, Facebook is being blamed for fuelling the ‘yellow vests’ unrest in France. Facebook Live videos, local events and constant updates turned unorganised outpouring into a national-level protest. Fake videos and images of violence were the tools that were used to incite protesters. But to blame social media for the unrest is as senseless as blaming pamphlets for the French Revolution.
Be it Facebook’s relevancy algorithm or Twitter’s recommended tweets, these platforms are designed to show you more of what you already engage with and thus increase your bias. While newer algorithms and artificial intelligence are being used to spot and stop fake news, the debate will continue about free speech. What is parody, what is humour and what is hate speech? Machine learning is in its infancy and we are a few years away from algorithms that can fight the evils of humanity. Aristotle said that the modes of persuasion are ethos, pathos and logos. What if these three in a society are skewed? And, tell me, what social media was there back then?
Om Routray works with an IT industry association
The presence of social media in our lives is highly complicated. While the birth of social media is based on the democratic principles of the Internet and its technological ability to be open and accessible to all, it has evolved to not only be inclusive and participative but also disruptive. The features of openness, obscurity and anonymity that once gave strength to marginalised communities are now giving room for malicious intentions to grow.
I view social media as comprising multilingual, multicultural and multimedia platforms that are inclusive and allow equal opportunities for all, irrespective of class, creed, race, religion, sex, age or financial resources. In a country like India, social media platforms have reached over 200 million people. Even though this makes India the second most populated country on the Internet, paradoxically, India also has the highest number of unconnected individuals since only about 30% of the country’s population has experienced the Internet so far.
The enabling effect of social media in India has been no different from what is has been in other countries, both developing and developed. It has given millions of people a platform to voice their opinions, it has given thousands of artists an opportunity to showcase their art to a global audience, it has given a platform to hundreds for news and other content. It has even provided citizens and governments a platform where they can engage in dialogue.
However, it is now increasingly being blamed for breeding toxicity, promoting polarisation, amplifying disinformation, birthing malicious intentions and swaying elections.
Remember how algorithms were less intelligent earlier? You posted something on Facebook, and you were sure all your friends would be able to see it and react. Today, your post is reaching only a handful of friends and followers, due to changing and evolving algorithms, unless you’re willing to pay. At all times, all our reactions and actions are being monitored by social media platforms so that they can strengthen their algorithms and analyse our behaviours. Artificial intelligence and machine learning are predicting our next move, and exposing us to select content, advertising and messaging. While I can thank my phone for reminding me where I parked my car, I can also be sceptical of the data it is collecting to profile me. How do I know for sure what data are being made available to other companies, for vested interests and for social, political or commercial gains?
While one issue is of strengthening AI by feeding it data, the other is of social media platforms being used to share content, without the obligation to verify it. Millions use social media everyday to produce content. Hundreds of them use it to push out disinformation (fake news created intentionally) or misinformation (due to biases or human errors). However, over the last couple of years, there has been a growing trend of misinformation, disinformation and even “fake accounts”, the latter directly targeted at pushing a political agenda or harassing somebody online.
Having accepted these social media evils, I still believe that social media is a tool for empowerment, especially for a country like India where 70% of the population is yet to get online and leverage the opportunities it has to offer. While social media is definitely facing the global challenges of information bombardment (both factual and fake), it is also enabling communities to access their rights and voice their opinion. Hopefully, in times to come, people will learn to take more responsibility for what they share and our social media platforms will regain their lost trust.
Osama Manzar is founder director of Digital Empowerment Foundation
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