It has been a long time since I've written anything on this blog about social media, because I honestly don't use much of it these days. I abandoned Twitter for the most part. I never used Snapchat or Instagram, being very privacy-conscious and a little paranoid about too much exposure. Facebook, however, I still check daily, mostly to see what my friends and family are up to. I'm also still addicted to Reddit.
At the same time, social media has become the latest battle ground in the culture wars. Russian bots and influencers have unleashed waves of fake news and other propaganda to influence unsuspecting users around the world. Cambridge Analytica stole information left and right. The neo-nazis, now rebranded the alt-right, use them heavily for recruitment. I remember the early days of Twitter, when people were scoffing at the prospect of anyone being able to say anything important with a 140-character limit. Now it's the U.S. President's primary means of communication. Frankly, it's little terrifying.
Looking back over my own posts on the subject, we were all wrestling with these questions and pointing out the potential for abuse for years. I was more worried about corporate giants trying to sell me things, honestly, as I watched the Facebook advertisements invade my feed and the proliferation of sponsored content popping up like daisies on news sites. The hoaxers and the conspiracy theorists pushing alternative narratives and propaganda were very obvious, or so I thought, and I never took their efforts very seriously. The early skirmishes with fake news, like the ACORN scandal, felt like rare occurrences. It wasn't until the 2016 election that everyone finally seemed to realize how susceptible a huge portion of the online public was to these tactics, and how willing various groups were to use them to push their agendas.
One of the biggest things that changed was the sheer volume of the propaganda. A major early warning sign was the steady disappearance of comment sections on the major news sites, which were increasingly being taken over by vitriolic agitators. Since the early days of the internet I would stumble across the occasional pocket of white nationalists or NRA die-hards who spent all their time online ranting about their pet causes, but they usually stayed in their own little bubbles. Suddenly there was a new breed of more vocal, more aggressive zealots who were instigating fights everywhere you looked. And it makes so much sense now to know that a lot of these agitators weren't just our home-grown crazies, but deliberately deployed trolls from Russia and other countries looking to cause disruptions in online discussions. So many sites just did away with comment sections because they didn't have the resources to deal with it.
Of course, social media can't do that because the whole point of them is the person to person interaction. There's been a lot of hand-wringing about how to combat the onslaught of propaganda, mainly looking at ways to make the platforms more responsible for their content the way the old school media like television and newspapers are. There's also been a huge push to educate the public about fake news and manipulation before the next round of American elections. Twitter and Facebook have made some very public efforts to curb hate speech and step up their enforcement of existing rules against notable bad actors. How much of an effect they're actually having is a matter of debate, and it may be an issue of too little too late.
I've very carefully curated my Facebook experience so that there are almost no political postings. I banished the majority of third party links and only a few odd relatives continue to rail about Trump or Marine Le Pen with any regularity. Mostly I just see baby and vacation photos, and the occasional silly meme. In Reddit, I stick to the media subs and try to avoid the main subreddits. It's a little harder, but I can usually ignore the trolls.
However, I know that this is no longer the common social media experience for a lot of people. I've watched friends and relatives get caught up in online fights, share ridiculously hyperbolic or outright fake stories, and become increasingly polarized and pushed to the extremes of the political spectrum. The fact that we're all liberals doesn't mean we're any less susceptible to the same mechanisms that got Trump elected.
To be continued...