I must be a glutton for punishment.
Despite repeated taunts and insults, I continue to engage irritable Facebookers in what I hope to be constructive discussions about serious issues. But the hits just keep coming.
“You’d vote for a chia pet if that is what was running against Trump,” one commenter told me. “You’re obviously a triggered liberal that has no kind of critical thinking and use your emotions to make choices.”
This, after I had responded to a meme criticizing Joe Biden for failing to release his tax plan or to offer potential choices for Supreme Court vacancies. Biden actually had released his tax plan – which I indicated with a supporting source. And Biden had clearly explained why he will not float any SCOTUS names at this time – which I indicated with another source.
But according to my friendly conversationalist, I let my emotions get the best of me. No critical thinking for me.
Still, I carry on. I engage people of all political persuasions in conversations. I ask for supporting evidence. I fact-check questionable claims. Endlessly. Even as I’ve been called a “self-proclaimed omniscient person” who “really need[s] to do some more research,” I continue to challenge dubious posts on social media and support my points with sources that I have, um, researched.
As a teacher of media literacy, I figure there’s no better time and place to practice what I preach than on today’s fact-deficient and conspiracy-rich social-media platforms. Even if I’ll never change the minds of the people I challenge, others who read these exchanges might see that facts really do matter, that there is a world outside of the digital bubble.
“The way to think about it is as 2.5 billion Truman Shows,” says Roger McNamee, an original Facebook investor who was interviewed in the documentary “The Social Dilemma.” “Each person has their own reality with their own facts. Over time you have the false sense that everyone agrees with you because everyone in your news feed sounds just like you. Once you’re in that state, it turns out you’re easily manipulated.”
The algorithms that drive social-media platforms exacerbate this situation through a continual feedback loop: The more someone clicks on content of a particular topic or opinion, the more the algorithm feeds that person additional content on that same topic or opinion – time and again. Even more frightening, the artificial intelligence underlying these algorithms has a mind of its own.
“There’s only a handful of people at these companies who understand how these [algorithm] systems work, and even they don’t necessarily fully understand what’s going to happen with a particular piece of content,” says Sandy Parakilas, former operations manager at Facebook, also interviewed in the documentary. “So as humans we’ve almost lost control over these systems. Because they’re controlling the information that we see, they’re controlling us more than we’re controlling them.”
Little wonder a conspiracy theory like QAnon is now followed by more than 4.5 million people in 170 groups, pages, and accounts on Facebook and Instagram. Without social media, QAnon – the theory that the president is “waging a secret war against a ‘deep state’ cabal of Democrats and Hollywood celebrities engaging in pedophilia and sex trafficking” – would be nary a blip on the public’s radar.
Sadly, one of QAnon’s biggest enablers is Donald Trump, who has not only “retweeted pro-MAGA messages from QAnon followers” but has also “endorsed and promoted GOP congressional candidates like Georgia’s Marjorie Taylor Greene, who openly embraces the unfounded theory.”
But it’s not just QAnon that Trump enables. A recent study has found Trump to be “the single largest driver of misinformation around COVID.”
“Researchers at Cornell University … analyzed 38 million articles about the pandemic in English-language media around the world,” according to the New York Times. “Mentions of Mr. Trump made up nearly 38 percent of the overall ‘misinformation conversation,’ making the president the largest driver of the ‘infodemic’ – falsehoods involving the pandemic.”
Perhaps Donald Trump’s recent COVID-positive test results will open the minds of the fact deniers on social media, maybe even cause them to check a few credible sources before they repost that latest meme.
Then again, I doubt it. Just one day after Trump tested positive, the conspiracy theories were already flying, according to the Associated Press: “Tweets shared thousands of times claimed Democrats might have somehow intentionally infected the president with the coronavirus during the debates. Others speculated in Facebook posts that maybe the president was faking his illness. And the news also ignited constant conjecture among QAnon followers.”
I hate to say it, but I fear that social media, the Pandora’s Box of our times, has escaped our grasp.
Barth Keck is an English teacher and assistant football coach who teaches courses in journalism, media literacy, and AP English Language & Composition at Haddam-Killingworth High School.
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