Archive - Jan 28, 2018

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Winston Smith’s Facebook Page

Companies earn their profits by exploiting their environment. Mining and oil companies exploit the physical environment; social media companies exploit the social environment.

- George Soros, Remarks delivered at the World Economic Forum, Davos, Switzerland, January 25, 2018

It is an interesting formulation of an old idea. How has our social environment been exploited? How similar is this to the way the physical environment has been exploited?

It isn’t a new idea. For a long time writers have complained about feeling compelled to give away their content in order to be read. I am doing that here. I put my post up. I share links to it on Facebook and Twitter, and hope someone will read it and respond. All of this becomes content to be used by large social media companies to make money off of advertising. Little, if any of that makes its way to the content creators.

To make things worse, the social media companies’ algorithms favor content that will get the most advertising revenue as opposed to the most trustworthy content, or the content that will best lead to the betterment of society.

Soros goes on to say,

Something very harmful and maybe irreversible is happening to human attention in our digital age. Not just distraction or addiction; social media companies are inducing people to give up their autonomy.

He talks about John Stuart Mill’s “Freedom of Mind”, and suggest the manipulation that is possible when people start losing freedom of mind has “already played an important role in the 2016 US presidential elections”.

He then invokes 1984 and Brave New World

This may well result in a web of totalitarian control the likes of which not even Aldous Huxley or George Orwell could have imagined.

If Winston Smith, the hero of 1984 were alive today, instead of a diary, maybe he would be posting on Facebook. This begs the question of how we understand “thought crimes”.

Some of my libertarian friends might equate “thought crimes” with “hate speech” and fight against rules about hate speech. The Ethical Journalism Network provides a useful five point test for hate speech.

They note the tragic consequences of hate speech, especially in the context of the Rwandan genocide. There first point is to consider “The Position or Status of the Speaker”.

journalists and media are regularly trapped by media-savvy and unscrupulous politicians and community leaders. These skilful users of media stir up disputes and discord in support of their own prejudices and bigoted opinions and rely on media to give coverage to their sensational claims and opinions no matter how incendiary they are.

It is interesting to consider not only the position of the speaker, but the medium they are using for speaking. Soros talks about the large social media companies saying,

The internet monopolies have neither the will nor the inclination to protect society against the consequences of their actions. That turns them into a menace and it falls to the regulatory authorities to protect society against them.

There is also the issue of groupthink. Is this a different way in which thought crimes are prosecuted? Around 2010, Eli Pariser coined the phrase “filter bubble” to describe how people social media algorithms group people together around shared ideas. Are there filter bubbles contributing to groupthink?

In 1972, social psychologist Irving Janis coined the phrase “groupthink” which

occurs when a group makes faulty decisions because group pressures lead to a deterioration of “mental efficiency, reality testing, and moral judgment”

Recently at my alma mater, there have been protests that were sparked when a member of the college football team posted racist material on Facebook.

The student was removed from campus and conservatives might bewail what they consider groupthink in the reaction of the students. Yet for it to be groupthink one would have to argue that protesting racism shows a deterioration of moral judgement.

How should we respond to the exploitation of our social environment? Are there things we can do to help repair our social environment? I pose these questions especially for politicians, religious leaders, and journalists.