Tuesday, January 29, 2019

The social media soapbox

Social media can seem like a free-for-all, open platform in which everyone has an equal say.

However, it's that exact premise that raises questions regarding the quality of the content we're exposed to online. If you give everyone a soapbox, what's the outcome? Furthermore, how is the outcome affected by the way social media is designed? How do we fix it?

Alex Jones' Infowars
Buzzfeed News

Contemporary philosopher Regina Rini explores these consequences during her interview with political philosopher Robert Talisse on the podcast Why We Argue on the topic "Is social media killing democracy?"

Largely, I believe Rini argues that social media is a product where public discussion is transmogrified into performance art. (Gone are the days of civil discussions about hard topics with friends over lunch or at the bar.) Social media platforms are engineered to encourage grandstanding because it is the most controversial statements drive the most user engagement, which feeds Facebook's bottom line and the top of our newsfeeds.

The concept of user engagement itself is fraughtful. It is easy to consider a single "like" as proxy for affirmative testimony, but my mom "liking" my post about burnt-out millenials isn't generally an agreement with that article. In other words, my act of sharing a post isn't as simple as an endorsement for the particular publication, author, and all of the views they espouse, but our natural impression might be otherwise. (Maybe this is also why social media helped us to self-sort into specific ideological camps.)

Social media is different from bar conversation because the information posted is filtered and distorted. We all know the keyboard activists in our feeds–those emboldened by the low-risk endeavor that is to "reshare" a controversial post–myself included. This is a problem because there is less opportunity for the nuances of natural conversation to take shape online. As social creatures, we've had a long history of attaining knowledge from others. (In fact, Yuval Harari attributes our social nature to the success of our survival as a species.) But when we treat low-caliber endorsements from social media like normal testimony from our closest friends and family, information becomes understandably distorted.


Lastly, Rini and Talisse discuss the asymmetry of online debate. Social media is not designed as a platform for debate. An open floor does not guarantee everyone as equal participants in moral debate. Especially when few people are trained in public debate. And especially when one side extemporaneously flourishes newly acquired technical vocabulary like a child brandishing a sword twice his length. Plus, winning an argument hardly proves productive, let alone changes a person's mind.

I think one immediate cultural approach to fix social media is radical transparency. We shouldn't allow companies to advertise their platforms using lofty statements akin to Twitter's "To give everyone the power to create and share ideas and information instantly." Instead, social media companies should be labeled, one way or another, as marketing companies.


Also, I think we need to design a human-centered system that goes beyond verified identities and independent watchdogs to confirm the veracity of online content. I imagine that part of that system is education, social media awareness campaigns, artificial intelligence, and government regulations. Will all of that prepare us for when deepfakes become a regular installment in everyday life?

Obama deepfake

Maybe we can start by taking greater personal responsibility for our statements online, design different interfaces for different audiences, or iterate an open-source social media platform. Overall, Regina Rini and Robert Talisse lead an excellent discussion about the problems of the current state of social media as an open forum, and I highly recommend giving them a listen.

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