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The Danger of Unregulated Social Media and Curated News Feeds

“A lie can travel halfway around the world before the truth can get its boots on.”
—Unknown (often attributed to Twain or Churchill)

“There’s even some evil mothers gonna tell you that everything is just dirt.”
—Lou Reed, “Sweet Jane”

A couple of days after we moved to Tennessee from California, my wife and I went to Target to get new phones. The location the phones received were now 20 minutes west of Nashville instead of Los Angeles. As soon as the phones rebooted, I noticed the stories we got in our news feeds changed drastically.

Ads for yoga mats and vegetarian food became hunting stores and churches. This is not hyperbole. It was assumed by my location that I would buy certain things, be interested in certain things. Advertisers assumed my belief system by location and were looking to reaffirm my existing mindset. We don’t all fall into simple categories—that’s what makes us wonderfully human. I am liberal, but I’ll have you know I hate kale, I don’t smoke weed, and I follow a budget all month long.

The next move was to have Apple help me curate my news feed, to choose what I would like to see in the news. WHAT? Isn’t the point of news that there are certain things that we should all know to keep our town, city, state, country, world going in a direction we can all understand and improve on and share with one another? Yeah, this may sound naive, over the top, like I watch too much Newsroom (the second greatest show after Sorkin’s West Wing), but truth is for EVERYBODY. And while many things are not black and white, there are such thing as FACTS. And those should not be repackaged, glossed up, or torn down to protect ANY SINGLE ONE OF US inside our little echo chambers. Truth exists in the moment, not when I feel like hearing it, not when it needs to match up to my prejudices or fears, not when someone is selling me something they have decided I will love based on my location or past purchases online.

We as a country need a difference in opinions. We need to hear voices that aren’t our own. And we need trusted, well-written news sources that explain and educate, not shock and disturb in hopes of keeping our attention. Giving us the choice to see what we only want to see is the opposite of news (the fact that news has to exist for profit in and of itself is a mess).

I’m afraid that ethics and logic just don’t scale very well.

If you are not a regular Facebook or YouTube user, you may not know that both companies are experimenting with algorithms to get the most eyes on content, and keep those eyes there for the longest amount of time. If you have ever tried to share a link outside Facebook, you have probably noticed your post throttled. Or if you said something that got everyone talking (or writing you back in ALL CAPS), you may have felt the speed in which that post was released to the rest of the community—as Facebook now deems it interesting or notable (read: will keep people on Facebook and keep profits up).

The problem is, any idiot can say something that infuriates someone else. Just because something is polarizing doesn’t mean it’s necessary, helpful, or should be above another post. We are giving an amazing amount of our time, our attention, and our power to companies that decide for us what our interests and beliefs are,  what might rattle us, what we might respond to, and what we should get to see.

When pushed for regulation, tech companies claim they are not in the business of regulating content, but it is not free speech or simply providing the roads for our words to run on when companies build algorithms where the most shocking information shoots to the top of a feed and is shared over and over, regardless of whether there is any truth to it. To decide what to throttle and what to give fuel to is in itself a tremendous power over what speech makes its way onto what we used to call the “airwaves.”

YouTube is about to overtake TV as America’s most-watched platform, and the average user spends 50 minutes a day on Facebook alone. The algorithms in these platforms have the ability to skew the way we see each other—how we view TRUTH itself. The algorithms of social media are bullying us into fighting with one another, and if you look at the evidence of bots adding to this disinformation, it’s no surprise we all feel so at odds with each other.

YouTube was recently forced to apologize for a trending video that shot up its charts and got 200,000 views by the time it was taken down. This was plenty enough time for it to burn a path through every other social media site and millions of households, minds, and hearts. It was the video that claimed Florida high school student and survivor of the Parkland shooting David Hogg was an actor “bought and paid by CNN and George Soros.”

Do you believe the other survivors from Parkland pretended to know an actor coming in to appropriate their story? I guess if you believe that, you are probably not reading this blog any longer.

Regardless of your political stripe or where you are in the gun debate, these kind of lies flowing through our screens, in a way that never could have happened in old-school news, are tearing apart democracy and our relationships with one another.

The fringe elements of the right and the left do not remotely reflect the average views in America, and yet they suck up all the oxygen in debates and on cable news, and on social media they are actually getting BOOSTED by AI for keeping eyeballs on the screen and the comments rolling in.

If you don’t watch more than one news outlet, don’t read books or have conversations with those different than you, it’s very easy to see anything in print or on a computer screen as NEWS or TRUTH. This is terrifying as we move into this supposed “post-truth” era, and especially as get closer to digitizing any human saying anything we want them to: https://mashable.com/2017/07/17/scary-fake-video-tool-obama-say-anything/#TSsumvAyOsqu.

Our technology has gotten ahead of us. Our excitement to all be heard, to get the most views and likes and shares, has jumped the shark. We need depth; we need context; we need truth. Anyone can burn down a room—I’m much more interested in how we can bring the room together and dig for the best IDEAS—ideas based in logic, fact, and, yes, raising each other up and not tearing each other apart.

My hope is we start to see some technology that actually brings us together. Every tech conference and Wired article I see is thrilled to DISRUPT—I’m more excited to see ideas that unite, that take the good we have and embellish it. Not everything that used to exist needs to be broken. I would love to see “old-school” news sources not chasing profit and not preaching to the choir (I happily pay my subscription fees to large newspapers with vetted reporters). My underlying fear here, as we continue to split apart on every issue, is that there comes a point where our distorted ideas always end in violence. The logical end of not understanding one another, of living in fear, of not taking a breath and considering each others’ opinions, is eventually war. And big surprise, this gypsy musician over here believes in love over war and using kindness anywhere we can spare it.

We are hiding behind our screens and not listening to one another.  We are anxiously awaiting the next shocking headline. Let’s talk to one another in our driveways, over a coffee or a whiskey. I bet we agree on more than it seems through these screens. When Facebook asks us to take a quiz, let’s mention bots and let’s mention not selling our information. Let’s call and write our elected officials. I believe there can be a regulated internet without hurting free speech.

Godspeed regulators—the market is not taking care of itself.

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