It is not Journalists, bloggers, Twitter or Facebook that make people smarter (or dumber)…

Facebook filter bubbleIt’s four years since Una Mullally left blogging, just around the time the Irisgate and Liam Adams stories were breaking. Writing in the Irish Times, she makes an important observation of the online melee that is t’Internet…

Empathy is one of the great battles of the internet. It is the erosion of empathy – when we’re met with screens, not faces – that sees people become cruel bullies and careless insulters. In controlling empathy, tech companies are at the precipice of wider emotional manipulation of “users”, formerly known as “people”.

She goes on to note that the new giants of the internet (the porous walled gardens of Facebook and Google), are up to stuff that affects what we see, and how we consume news…

By controlling the sentiment of information you see, Facebook can change how you feel. They call this “emotional contagion”. If this is the study Facebook is happy to make public, then what is it doing in private?

This emotional filter bubble has correlations with the rise in frivolous news. Google’s experimental “happy” newsroom processes were made public after the Brazil vs Germany World Cup semi-final. After analysing their databases for people’s searches, there was a distinction between negative terminology topping searches, yet more upbeat content being shared on social media.

Thus, to create more shared or viral content, the experimental newsroom focused on the positive stuff, and stayed away from the negative. That is the future. A newsroom where the trivial and tittering triumphs. Yoga-baiting priests, indecisive country stars, babies stuck in mop buckets (a story RTÉ published online on Friday).

Why stop at the World Cup? Surely there are some fun or heartstring-tugging stories to come out of the Israeli military pummelling Gaza instead of the reality of killing innocent civilians? What’s “shared” becomes what’s “important”. The difficulties with “liking” negative news stories mean that negative content also gains less traction.

In this context, it’s interesting (and possibly relevant) to mention that Nietzsche argued that in Greek times, the rise of Comedy signalled the death Tragedy, or “two primitive artistic impulses represented by the Gods Apollo and Dionysus”.

The high moral play of Greek Tragedy was also integral to the rise of the democratic state. It cast rulers at the centre of a deep often intractable moral dilemma. It also represents the birth of popular formal theatre.

The “Oh, shiny” impulse of the modern networked landscaped might be seen as merely opening another round between straight laced serious minded Apollo and wined addled, dancing fool Dionysus. When the latter was around, there is no guarantee that has been before will be what comes after.

Everywhere, small nations like Ireland which paid a high price for its independence is having its borders routinely busted by large internet borne multinational companies like Amazon, Facebook, Google and the like.

And with it they are bringing their own comedic set of gamer values and dispositions. John Seely Brown and Douglas Thomas had a crack at defining these a few years ago…

Una concludes…

“Good” certainly should not be left to be defined by Zuckerbergs or Pages or Dorseys. Coercive persuasion has long been an element of religion and oppressive societies. How ironic that, given “internet freedom”, it could become an element of the great digital landscape. The libertarian philosophy of the web is a fallacy when controlled by billion-dollar corporations.

In the second season of Orange is the New Black on Netflix – a service that uses algorithms to decide what you want to watch – Red, a middle-aged Russian prisoner, explains the internet to an elderly convict. “You’re telling me all the information in the world is in wires?” she replies. “But people are still stupid, right?”

This is where I fundamentally disagree with the premise of the piece. Una is perhaps observing matters through the wrong end of the telescope. People have always wanted cheap entertainment, and for generations TV producers have been providing them with just that. It does not, per se, make them stupid (or at least I hope it doesn’t)…

As Michael Schudson has noted it is not Journalists, bloggers, Twitter or Facebook that make people smarter…

The well informed citizen is defined not by a consumer’s familiarity with the contemporary catalogue of available information, but by a citizen’s formed set of interests that make using the catalogue more than a random effort.

The news media increasingly help to provide the materials for the informational citizen, but do not and cannot create the informed citizen.

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  • Here’s a little bit more from Michael:

    I do not conclude from this that we have the right information at the right time or that available information is distributed equitably or that the informational citizen is well informed. Our increasingly dazzling library of information provides only an illusion of knowledge and a false promise of citizenly competence if the social order does not equip people to use it, if young people are cynical, if the poor have no hope, if the middle class is self-absorbed, and if forays into public life are discouraging and private pursuits altogether more rewarding than public enterprise.

  • Sergiogiorgio

    It all reads a bit conspiracy theory to me. Irrespective of the slant of the news you would hope people are bright enough to read between the lines. This idea of mass media manipulation works for North Korea but I’m less sure it follows in “developed” nations and if it did I’d be watching government manipulators and not private internet companies. However I do despair of the US TV news media when I’m there – that’s often just clear misrepresentation of the facts. What also concerns me, and has done for a long time, is internet access in the developing world. Travel from Algiers to Harare and consider the number of internet cafes providing access to the world wide web and all the perceived excesses of the free west. Then ask yourself how that would make a young Muslim feel in those countries – would it inspire wonder, jealousy, rage? In my cack handed way I’m agreeing with Nevins quote below, I think.