By Juan Viale Rigo
Today, anyone who decides to think for themselves or express an unpopular opinion may come across as a conspirator who wants to go against the world. This leads me to wonder about the capability to question and the critical thinking abilities of people who now share the same opinion and vision about the various topics that concern our society. More importantly, what is the root of the positions that everyone now professes as the absolute truth? The answer arrived on a silver platter: social media.
Previously, debates and rejection of false information were more common on social media. However, now, it seems that users are busy signaling the moral superiority of their positions and voicing similar opinions. However, these positions often lack theoretical or empirical underpinnings, and what can be disappointing is that they have no argumentative foundations. Fewer and fewer people are expressing rational opinions. It is as though adults suddenly became arrogant pre-teens who believe that they hold the absolute truth in their hands and that at the slightest questioning or disagreement, they impulsively and emotionally defend to the death the popular stance they have adopted.
The burning of the Amazon was a controversial case that strangely amplified ten days after the start of the fire. Soon, it aroused the interest of the world and especially of social media users, who suddenly became aware of the subject, or that is what they claimed when questioned about their interest. What caught my attention the most was that there was a common factor in all the opinions of Facebook users: they were all talking about the problem from its political component, that is, “Bolsonaro is the culprit” or “This is the result of capitalism.” They all seemed to be aware of what was happening in Brazil, of its figures. Moreover, they were soaked in the politics of this country to make judgments.
Initially, I had doubts about whether the information posted by influencers, media publications, and ordinary social media users was out of genuine worry that the Amazons present for the world or whether it was a campaign to blame president Bolsonaro who was not solely responsible for extinguishing the flames consuming the planet’s lung. Everything seemed credible until I investigated the facts. I came across a reality distinct from what was sold to me by social media users. I explored statistics without exaggeration and noticed that media around the world was blatantly using false images and denying that the Bolivian amazon was burning too. After much research, I concluded that social media is not only influencing its users’ opinions but also causing the death of critical thinking and forming one’s own views.
How are social media platforms influencing mass opinion?
The existence of algorithms implemented by social media networks is not a secret. For those who are still unaware of their existence, it is a set of calculations that allow social networks to decide what content to show you and what you want to see. For some time now, the content you consume in timelines does not arise from the chronological order but depends on the interest you show in different topics or types of content and products that are advertised. Targeted content also depends on the usage patterns of your social media friends, the messages you exchange with them, and the content that they like and share. In this way, a chain reaction is generated, making any content go viral. The issue is that much of the viral content was devised to influence you and your circles in social networks.
The existence of an algorithm keeps users in a comfort zone in which they only read and consume what they are interested in or what they want to listen to so much so that they stop questioning any information that comes from specific sources. Some media publications take advantage of the comfort of social media users and bet on sensationalism and exaggeration to favor certain tendencies or merely generate more traffic. In a majority of the cases, they use the advertising tools of major social media platforms.
Rarely do we ask ourselves whether the news or the information we read on networks is the unbiased truth or a campaign to favor specific trends, much less if they are part of an agenda aimed at influencing our thinking. That is why fake news and sensationalism are playing a fundamental role in the popular views of people. They increasingly respond to the emotional rather than the rational.
Social media and the youth
Social media platforms and youth is at this point where we must reflect on the influence it can have on the development of the personality of a teenager who is likely to spend much time on the internet. If it influences adults so profoundly, imagine the impact on young people. We do not realize that the personality of many young people is shaped by moral positions, ideology, and opinions that social networks sell them.
According to a study by the independent website, of the almost 2.8 million adolescents aged 12 to 17 who have Internet access in Spain, more than 495,300 (18.2%) show symptoms of addiction. Additionally, the study found that these symptoms are slightly more common among children aged 12 to 14 (18.83%) than among those aged 15 to 17 (17.56%).
Social networks are being useful for imposing lines of thought, spreading lies, and influencing the opinions of the average user. Young people are the most vulnerable and susceptible to fall for or adopt popular positions. They are less and less interested in research, questioning, and developing their own ideals. In the absence of spaces for debate and with such deficient educational systems, it is very easy for young people to buy into everything they see on the internet, which is their principal influence. Now it costs much less to understand the youth, the voters, and the buyer. We need fewer and fewer surveys to know what people want to hear or what they need. Populism has the information on a silver platter. Society becomes more homogenous, submissive, and faithful to “popular culture.” We are confronted with a society alienated from the thought that responds positively to rhetoric and sentimentality. People are increasingly accustomed to seeing, reading, and listening only to what they want or are interested in. They are annoyed when they hear different opinions and seem to want to take the algorithm of social networks into real life. It appears that social media algorithms have seeped into real life.
According to the global digital reports shared by We Are The Social and Hootsuite, the average social media user now spends 2 hours and 16 minutes each day on social media platforms, equivalent to 15 hours and 12 minutes per week on average. This represents an increase of 40 minutes compared to 2014.
Addiction to social networks is increasing. We should not be surprised considering that social media platforms operate using the same system of casinos and gambling: variable rewards. Social networks notify us from time to time which motivates the user to make more effort to use these platforms either by commenting, sharing photos, or only interacting. The fact that you can get new notifications generates more significant attraction to the user who spends more time on the internet looking to be visible, please the social milieu, thus acting upon their addiction.
The case of Cambridge Analytica
Since the algorithm was implemented, users only see what they want to see or, in the worst case, what the mainstream media wants us to see. We live in an era where networks are defining our future, our way of thinking and, ultimately, the future of our nations. If social networks are influencing elections, we must question the future of our democracies. Can social media affect a country’s elections?
In 2018, the U.S. Federal Trade Commission opened an investigation into Facebook that turned into a controversial lawsuit in which the company had to pay 5 billion USD after the investigation revealed that the company manipulated the data of more than 87 million people without their consent. However, the most alarming thing about this case was that they used a personality test to collect user data and then sell it to Cambridge Analytica.
A former employee of the company confessed that he collected data from more than 50 million users without authorization. Based on various complaints, the data was used to create profiles of voters most likely to be persuasive and thus, with the use of false news, exaggeration, and sensationalism, the company influenced the United States presidential election in 2016. The same happened with the Brexit in the United Kingdom.
What is our responsibility and what role should we as communicators and media assume?
We have the task of promoting debate and opting for quality journalism, based on the truthfulness of the facts, pluralism of ideas, and a commitment to critical thinking. We have to encourage the population to believe in us again and retake the reins of impartiality to face the lies and the dishonest operations of fake news.
We have to be the protagonists of the awakening of tomorrow’s society and strive to captivate the unwary user once again to empower them to develop their own ideas that will allow them to decide their moral position on issues that concern our society. Only in this way will we be prepared to evolve as a society and once again hold the reins of the future.
We are all communicators, but we have to decide what kind of communicators we want to be.
Juan Viale Rigo is a columnist and a Venezuelan writer.