Saturday, January 30, 2016

Are those nefarious "social media bubbles" a figment of our imagination?

From our Homemade philosophy series

Your answer should be: No, they are real, of course!

The exclamation mark is not essential, but the blogster thought you might enjoy it.

We get to reasons why you might say "yes" and draw the ire of many people a bit further down.

This post uses the term "social media bubble" in the sense of "filter bubble" or "echo chamber", not in the economic sense of something overvalued and potentially nearing a crash.

Unfortunately, social media - in everyday usage in Western countries that really means Twitter and Facebook with a side of YouTube - are being blamed for pretty much everything that is wrong or outright hateful and evil in mass communication.

The blogster uses the term "mass communication" for the features that share information with the world, not an invitation only Twitter account, not a friends only Facebook account. The latter are highly interesting to law enforcement and spooks, but much less relevant to this post, although, if you like overly broad incorrect generalizations, you could see them as perfect examples of an echo chamber. 

We all know many examples of how hate and hurt in social media had "real life" consequences, and we get pummeled by reports of more hate speech. The blogster looked at some in A ranking of German tweets that attack people as a***hole.

Setting aside attacks on individuals for whatever trait or alleged action, the two main media concerns with the bubbles and the echo chamber are propaganda and extremism.
Reports on Russian Twitter propaganda with "troll factories" and bots are legion. Their actual impact, though, is much less certain than typically claimed. NATO, always eager to emphasize the danger out of the East, commissioned a study on the issue of trolls in "hybrid warfare" Internet Trolling as a hybrid warfare tool: the case of Latvia, which is more interesting than one might think. It contains the usual hybrid warfare trash talk - which any good historian would shrug off as, oh, the Romans did that, just without the internet.

On page 81, the study concludes:
The blogster considers this section remarkable. The admission that trolling doesn't really do much in one of the Eastern European countries that came out of the USSR and are presented as very fragile is impressive. The mushy "induce certain effects in the longer run" looks like a sentence a desperate analyst might put in to "save the day".

There is another NATO publication, this one straight from a defense college and awfully named The Weaponization of Social Media, with some interesting practical and ethics questions,

According to German website dekoder, Russian propaganda also includes buying outright fake witnesses for stories. Before you get too upset about the reported instances, you might want to consider that the West is, as the blogster said elsewhere, better at faking it. One of the stellar accomplishments of the West was the hoax story about Saddam's soldiers and the incubator babies of Kuwait.

As far as extremism goes, this excerpt from a VICE Motherboard article sums up the basic thinking: In a way, social networking has taken fringe groups and given them power they never had before. The small-town white supremacist or misogynist might be obnoxious on his own; armed with an internet community of like-minded individuals, he becomes outright dangerous. In that way, technology has taken the fringe and "exacerbated" the problem of extremism, Phillips said.

It is true, the small-town white supremacist or the ISL fanatic can reach out to others around the world with ease. As a result, we are constantly reminded of the dangers by politicians and much of the media.

There is only one problem: history.

So far, history's most atrocious wars and genocide all took place without the internet and its social media.

The world is becoming more peaceful, despite a recent spike.

How dangerous then are the echo chambers?

Until now, certainly much less so than the echo chambers at the time Hitler and Stalin came to power, or at the time of the Chinese Great Leap Forward.

Sometimes, the "traditional" media feed on and reinforce a social media storm, like the dumb, idiotic frenzy described in German 4 Dummies: h8 the 88.

How are algorithms that create a filter bubble by personalizing what you see fundamentally different from what newspaper editors have been doing since their industry took off?

They are not as far as content creation goes. The issue of the data they collect and what they do with it, is another subject altogether. If you are worried about insidious algorithms, there is information out there to help:I Liked Everything I Saw on Facebook for Two Days. Here’s What It Did to Me.

And here is a claim:
Today, it is much easier to break out of your bubble or at least see other bubbles because you don't have to spend a lot of time and money to get other views. You can read some of the New York Times, some RT, some Frankfurter Allgemeine or whatever else and get a much better insight than before the Internet.

Try to answer this question: before the internet, before TV and radio, how many citizens would go and buy a stack of newspapers ranging from the "left" to the "right"?

Answer: very, very few.

Don't get sucked into the narrative of the bad guys having much more power. The good guys have a lot more power too, and we see it used.

And the "bad guys" are easier to spot. You don't have to travel to the small town of the Motherboard article to see if it has a white supremacist. Yes, pseudonyms make it a little for difficult, but the people we pay to keep an eye on those guys can overcome that hurdle.

It is important to know how to defend yourself on social media. A nice guide is HOW TO: Effectively Manage Hate and Anger on Social Media Sites.

Are you still waiting for the "yes" to the question "are social media bubbles a figment of our imagination"?

Philosophically speaking: yes because every concept humans come up with comes from our imagination.

On a practical everyday level, wouldn't this quote from an article by the American Press Institute entitled How Americans get their news indicate that social media bubbles do not, or not yet, have that much power over us?

Only 15 percent of adults who get news through social media say they have high levels of trust in information they get from that means of discovery. Social media and word-of-mouth are the least-trusted means of discovering the news, with 37 percent of those who got news this way in the last week mistrusting or trusting only slightly social media and 33 percent mistrusting word-of-mouth.

The blogster doesn't doubt the existence of bubbles, but finds it counterproductive to focus on the social media bubbles while ignoring all the others: family background, education, regional/national roots and others.

Which bubbles do you pick, which ones do you inherit or drift into, what are the rewards of a specific bubble, is there a price to pay for leaving a bubble?

What if you could turn all your bubbles into soap bubbles?

[Update 2/3/2016]
Good news from inside our bubble!
According to this article in French conservative daily Le Figaro on Islamist extremists, 95% of those radicalized were radicalized outside of the Internet, by "human contact".
Obviously, we all need to live in social media bubbles because human contact is dangerous.

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