I’ve been online since 1994. That was before there was even a working web, for the most part. That open market of ideas would lead to blogs, and then to google ads – which were bad enough. I was definitely part of the migration that pushed print journalism to crap the bed. Revenue streams were tapped and diverted. People like me found readers looking for an alternative to actual journalists and before long actual journalism had to compete alongside the blogs – many of whom were funded on our own dimes. Highly paid film critics were fired and replaced by people like me whose voices and viewpoints were unrestrained. That newfound freedom would become a double-edged sword. The Google ad model gave rise to clickbait for purely survival reasons. We all had to learn how to draw eyeballs. With so much free content available, readers bristled at paying for subscriptions and ads were the only way to make money. clickbait was born.
Sites like The Huffington Post started much of the madness of drawing in users with stories of naked Kardashians. But if we thought THAT was a problem, we had no idea what was to come. I joined Twitter in 2007. I had joined “The Facebook” roughly around 2009 I think? Neither of these sites seemed to be doing much harm way back during the Obama presidency. Obama’s savvy young team of influencers used social media to broaden the reach of his message and attract new voters. Unintentionally, the Obama era represented an attitude that has now become “virtue signaling.” People who use social media to spread good messages about themselves and what they believe in to draw the support of like-minded people.
But things started to get really weird in 2016. By that time, our behavior had been tracked for a decade. We were suddenly reduced to humming data points in large hives whose behavior was predictable and therefore easy to manipulate. This was an opportunity ripe to exploit, with a multipronged strategy. Just as it was easy for Russian trolls to worm their way onto the screens and into the minds of conservatives, it was not hard for bad actors to infiltrate Left Twitter by posing as Bernie supporters or Black Lives Matter supporters and working to break apart the hives, sew division, and upend the plans for Democrats to win a third term for the presidency. We were being manipulated on both Twitter and Facebook but we would not figure it out until it was way too late.
Back in the old days of Twitter, most old-school journalists resisted the minute-to-minute breaking of news. Facts still mattered. Vetting stories and sources still mattered. Objectivity still mattered. Now, all bets are off. For survival, major news organizations have themselves been forced by necessity to fold into the hive mind. The trends move too fast, the blowback is too severe.
I realized something had gone terribly, horribly wrong when the New York Times had an existential meltdown over a Tom Cotton op-ed. It wasn’t that I agreed with it or thought Cotton’s opinion was good and worthy news, but what bothered me more was the reason for the crisis was Twitter. (I had cancelled my subscription to the Times over their decision to post so many stories about Tara Reade’s allegations assault – but I am back to being a subscriber, because I want legit journalism to recover and survive.) The most troubling thing to witness is the way the hive mind on Twitter goes from 0 to 60 and that kind of recklessness causes unintended casualties. One person gets offended and soon hundreds and thousands of people pile on. The pressure becomes too intense. No one can really beat it back. The public humiliation is simply too great. This has mostly been happening while Trump is in power and mostly related to “rapists” and “racists” — in quotes here, as a reminder that the words can weaponized against anyone at anytime, justly or unjustly. The anxiety and hair-trigger tension is understandable in these dark days, because a man credibly accused of both of these things has been installed in the Oval Office. It makes everyone hypervigilant but the unbridled wave of hysteria has erased the line between vigilant and vigilante.
All the same, I expected the New York Times not to buckle under to that hysteria. After all, they had reached out to Cotton to express the same opinion held by a majority of Americans — 58% — who were scared by disturbing scenes of the demonstrations they saw on TV. When protests against police brutality in the wake of the George Floyd murder erupted into violence on both sides, most people polled said that if mayors and governors could not get it under control then the federal government should step in to provide protection. What most were seeing on their televisions was frightening, whether it was an accurate portrait or not.
But the New York Times and most of Left Press had to stick to the message – and the message was these were “mostly peaceful” protests and calling in the military was yet another step leading to fascism. The implication behind the message management is that Twitter was watching. Everything and everyone. And the New York Times buckled. You will still hear defenders of their action, of course, because Twitter does not like dissent of any kind. But it was enough of a wakeup call for me to break the spell.
Once I realized I was caught up in a hive mind driven reality, I had to try to figure out why. Once I did that, I began to push back a little on Twitter and Facebook and I realized how dangerous it is to do that now and why no one does. People like my daughter, who is 22, says she just keeps what she thinks to herself, so great is the fear of losing friends, losing jobs, losing status, and being publicly shamed.
We are in a very dark place – especially since Covid-19 has put more of us online as our only means of social interaction and limited so much of what we would ordinarily do in the real world.
In the film the Social Dilemma, Tristan Harris lays out the game plan that has always been the goal for Silicon Valley: to hook its users, keep them engaged and addicted by using the same method employed by slot machines. That’s why there is a moment of pause before you see your notifications. You are anticipating that you will get them. Your brain craves them. You are rewarded with dopamine if you have a lot. But then, you are deprived of dopamine if you have none. Your brain craves to get back what it lost. You need affirmation and confirmation to feed the dopamine receptors in your brain. This is easy to achieve on Twitter. You simply need to accurately gauge the mood of the hive mind you exist in, and show that you’re compatico. Film Twitter? Left Twitter? Trump Twitter? If you exist in these worlds and your posts fit the mold, you will be rewarded. If you question or disagree you will be shut down, called out, humiliated, unfriended and unfollowed.
Tristan Harris is part of a group of people who are sounding the alarm. They know information is power. The first step is awareness. Once I realized I was in a bubble it took me a while to climb my way out of it. The first thing I did was pull away from Facebook. The second thing I did was start reading and listening to people I didn’t agree with. I started looking for and finding platforms that promoted ideas I didn’t agree with. I read websites that weren’t aimed at me and others like me. That helped broaden my perspective a little bit. I read books about social media. (You’ll find some of them listed below).
And the consequence of this? People writing to me to ask if I was okay. Some people deciding not to be my friend anymore. Some friends calling me terrible names and/or lecturing me about what I should think, what I should believe. Because otherwise — I am an outcast. Shunned as one might be in the Amish community. Or Scientologists would call it an “SP.” But to me, having a free mind matters more than anything else. Literally anything.
Thankfully, there is a growing community of people who have likewise crawled out of the bubbles where they found comfort, and are doing what freewill humans are actually supposed to do – speaking honestly and openly.
Watching the Social Dilemma is a good start. It will help a little to at least show us how to recognize the problem. If you don’t use Facebook or Twitter much then you aren’t the target audience. But if you do, you might be shocked find how it’s been specifically engineered to mess with your emotions.
I can’t promise that pulling yourself out of your hive will make you feel very good. It might make you feel depressed, at first. Like any withdrawal from any addition will do. But eventually, if enough people cut loose from their predictable comfort zones, Big Tech will be forced to make changes. Although, as with Climate Change, it might already be too far gone to do enough to reverse the damage. Tristan Harris and the director of the The Social Dilemma Jeff Orlowski, are hopeful. That they are hopeful is enough to give us all hope.