Zeynep Tufekci is an academic who studies emerging technologies and the affect they have socially, particularly how they can influence our emotions and political viewpoints. In her TED Talk “We’re Building a Dystopia Just to Make People Click on Ads,” she discusses that it’s not A.I. robots that we should fear, or some kind of Orwellian future, but rather we should worry about “how the people in power will use this A.I.to control us, to manipulate us in novel, sometimes hidden, subtle, and unexpected ways.”
Tufecki certainly does not deny the importance of social media and even believes that it can have a profound impact on social movements and circumventing censorship, but it’s the structure of how our personal data is collected that needs to change. The structure is currently built in a way that she refers to as “persuasion architecture.” Similar to how grocery stores strategically place candy at eye level of children to persuade them to incessantly ask their parents to buy it, the persuasion architecture with digital technology is even less limited.
The algorithms used by sites like Facebook, YouTube, and Google are designed to figure out our weaknesses, our preferences, our spending habits, etc. These algorithms then decide for us what political posts we see, what advertisements we are exposed to, even what YouTube videos auto play next. She says this is another level of deep surveillance and it tailors our digital information to us, and only us. There’s no way to ensure that people are exposed to the same information and instead creates polarized viewpoints.
Although she knows, from her own personal research, that those who work for these large social media companies are not maliciously trying to control us by selling our information, it’s what it’s led to. She stresses the importance of being aware of how these systems work and to acknowledge that it needs to change. We depend on digital technologies for advancements and we should care about how these systems operate without our goals and values being for sale.
While you watch this video, think about ways we can change the “persuasion architecture” to lessen the polarization of our society.
Link to video: We’re Building a Dystopia Just to Make People Click on Ads
In this article, Darrell West examines findings that the Brookings Institute discovered when looking into the effects of social networking on political interest. Based on their findings from individuals who have played key roles in high-profiles campaigns and election, TBI has identified ten suggestions in which social media can be be used effectively to improve engagement in the democratic process.
The topics for the suggestions cover a wide range but they cover things in the realm of how effectively a message can be communicated and how trustworthy said message is. In a world where information is provided at our fingertips, and where information is so quickly disputed, they found that people must win trust in order to influence their audience. Along with that, their are emphases on how best to communicate i.e. which medium(s) to use and when to do so. Allowing an audience to reach one is highly significant because it allows civic discussions to begin. By creating a reachable platform, whomever is trying to disperse their message allows for their information to be shared and keeps people involved.
West’s consolidation of this information provides a unique insight into how campaigns try to stay connected with voters and constituents.
Ten Ways Social Media Can Improve Campaign Engagement and Reinvigorate American Democracy
Though the concept has become very popular, the act of digital activism is relatively new. This study “Digital Activism and Non-Violent Conflict”, done by communication experts Frank Edwards, Philip N. Howard, and Mary Joyce, attempts to define what digital activism is and how it is used around the world. As well as applying digital activism to non-violent conflicts and discussing when these campaigns of the future can be successful.
In this article, Sanders examines the ways in which social media changes the way we talk about politics, and how this, in turn, influences the ways we treat our “friends” on online platforms. Rather than gather in an online space to engage in meaningful conversations about political discourse, the thoughts and reactions to political positions grows shorter, and increasingly divisive. Social media are short discourse platforms, allowing users to discuss but in fragments rather than long monologues. Sanders displays an example in which two candidates reduce their arguments to a petty back-and-forth, displaying how these conversations have evolved from a more sophisticated argument to cheap shots. Additionally, with the rise in Twitter bots, Sanders includes information about the percentages of Twitter supporters, for both parties, who may not have even been real people.
The change in the online conversation has also shifted the focus from topics of policy. As Sanders notes, online communities tend to discuss topical scandal-driven updates rather than the candidates political qualifications or platforms. Throughout the election, the changes in the way we communicate with each other about politics had an effect on feelings of division within the country. And, according to Sanders, this election includes some teachable moments to learn from for the future.
Did Social Media Ruin Election 2016?
Published October 2017, Kent Anderson’s “About Face-Scholarly Publishing and Social Media Regulation,” analyzes critically the loopholes and political aspects of Facebook in the past few years. Anderson entertains the idea of a regulated social media and how users may perceive it. A question posed is his article is where scholarly publishers will turn too when Facebook and other media sources’ growth is stunted by regulation.
This contribution is a Ted Talk performed by Wael Ghonim entitled Let’s Design Social Media that Drives Real Change. Ghonim is an internet activist and computer engineer from Cairo. Ghonim was a very instrumental figure during the 2011 Egyptian Revolution. In his Ted Talk, Ghonim discusses his path and how social media played a vital role in the initial success and eventual failure of the Egyptian Revolution.
A photo of the dead, tortured body of an Egyptian man named Khaled Said began to circulate online. After being haunted by the photo, Ghonim anonymously started a Facebook page called “We Are All Khaled Said.” The page became more popular than the mainstream media in that area and began to share important information the regime didn’t want the citizens to know. Recognizing the momentum that was building, Ghonim organized a protest on January 25th. The plan was successful and thousands upon thousands protested in the streets. The regime responded by turning off the internet. Ghonim was abducted in the street and held for 11 days while blindfolded and handcuffed. Three days after Ghonim’s release, Mubarak stepped down.
After Mubarak stepped down, there was a short period of celebration. However, things began to quickly fall apart. On this Ghonim says “The euphoria faded. We failed to build consensus and the political struggle led to intense polarization.” Social media, the tool that made the revolution possible in the first place, began to drive Egyptians further apart. Rumors, misinformation, and hate speech filled social media and prevented any real change. On July 3, 2013 the army ousted the first democratically elected president.
After experiencing a revolution grow, succeed, and then ultimately fail all through social media. Ghonim has pinpointed five critical challenges he believes face social media: we don’t know how to deal with rumors, we only communicate with people we agree, online discussions turn into angry fights, it’s hard to change our opinions, and social media is designed in a way that favors broadcasting over engagement and posts over discussions
Ghonim argues that for social media to be used to bring about real change, we must find a way to make the environment more thoughtful. We must have discussions and not arguments. Rumors and misinformation must be stopped before they can do damage. Also, we must be mindful that social media is made up of people and not avatars.
Frontline: Generation Like
If you have the time, this hour-long 2014 documentary from Frontline discusses Generation Z’s relationship with social media, both in terms of how they’re shaping it, and how it is potentially shaping them. FRONTLINE correspondent Douglas Rushkoff meets with many young internet celebrities (including familiar faces like Youtuber Tyler Oakley) and internet fans to discuss both the empowering aspects of social media, and perhaps some unintended consequences. I find this documentary to be a compelling conversation piece in terms of politics and culture even though much of its content has become obsolete since its first airing. While the rules of being a Youtuber and how to get rich and famous quick using skateboarding videos have changed, the overall cultural impact of social on and performed by Generation Z remains relevant in the context of our overall culture.