Terms like “Fake News” and “Filter Bubbles” are making it difficult for us to figure out what’s really happening in the world these days. People seem to be blaming social media … but like any other new phenomenon, technology like this is neither good nor bad in itself – it’s how we use it that makes the difference.
My son went to work for Facebook a few months ago, so I’ve become interested in looking at my own on-line behavior. I remembered one morning long before I started this process when I asked my husband what he does when he goes to his Facebook page in the morning. He replied, “I just check my News Feed.” He’s a man of few words and didn’t offer a further explanation, so I didn’t ask and just assumed that I knew what he meant.
I may have noticed that little word “News Feed” in the upper left corner of my page, but had never clicked on it. My assumption was that Richard was just checking the news online since I know he keeps up with what’s going on in the world. It never occurred to me that when I opened my own Facebook page that’s what I was seeing – not his News Feed, but my own. I certainly never thought of what I was seeing as “News” because I was just seeing pictures of cats or grandchildren, links to websites that my friends like, or jokes that someone felt worth sharing.
Once I figured out that the long string of new posts I see everyday is called a News Feed, it became clear to me why mine is totally different from my husband’s. I set it up that way! I didn’t realize that’s what I was doing, but when I thought about how I use Facebook, it became pretty obvious.
Since my career in mathematics ended with Geometry in the 10th grade, I’m not going to try to explain what my son told me about how Facebook’s filtering system works. But I do know this: There’s nobody at Facebook deciding what I see or what I don’t see. I’m doing it all by myself. Whenever I “Like” something – “Share” something – “Follow” something – buy something …. or fall prey to one of those little “Click-bait” links on the right side of my page, I’m providing information so that the giant ALGORITHM at Facebook can decide what I want to see. After a while I’ve created what we’re now calling a Red Bubble or a Blue Bubble.
So that’s why I’m now beginning to think in shades of purple. I’ve known for a long time that I am not “Red” … but I have realized that I’m certainly not “True Blue” either. In fact, I agree with much of what my “Red” friends post. So now I’m going to choose the “shade of purple” that I’d like my bubble to be. The giant data base at Facebook keeps track of everything I do on my page, so I can be sure that I’ll get more of whatever I pay attention to. When I tell it what I like – I’ll get more of that. Where I go, who I know (and even who they know and where they go) will be taken into account. You’ll have to decide for yourself whether you think that’s a good thing or a bad thing – but the bottom line is that it is what it is. I believe that the only way this “cyber-civil war” is going to come to an end is for us to mix it up a little. Add a bit of red to your blue bubble – or a little blue to your red one. Listen more. React less. With apologies to Alice Walker, I’ll paraphrase a line in her book that just came to mind: “God gets pissed when we don’t notice the color purple.”
In January 2004 Mark Zuckerberg was inspired to write the code for Facebook after a somewhat unfortunate experiment with a site he and his buddies at Harvard called “Facemash.” Even at 19 years old, it didn’t take him long to realize that he had created something unique and worth pursuing. So that summer he left Harvard with a few friends and moved his venture to a rented house in Palo Alto, the heart of California’s Silicon Valley. I keep wondering if he ever thought things would move so fast. My guess is that he probably did since he must have been familiar with the book Bill Gates published in 1999 called Business @ the Speed of Thought.
I seriously doubt, however, that Mark ever thought Facebook would become the political phenomenon that it has – and certainly not that anyone would use it as their primary news source. Real “Fake News” sites are now shared daily … and politicians can just hint that a legitimate story is “Fake” and people who chose to live in their own private bubbles are quick to believe.
So here we are … Connecting and Sharing with our Friends at an astronomical speed. Our Red Bubbles and Blue Bubbles are moving farther and farther apart like the Starship Enterprise at Warp 2, and nobody seems to be slowing down long enough to even see what is happening.
As I said in the beginning, these thoughts have been meandering through my mind since my tour of the Facebook headquarters shortly after my son went to work there. I know that Facebook is doing a lot to counteract the effects of Fake News and filter bubbles, but I also know that I need to become more conscious of my own on-line behavior.
Below, in no particular order are some things that have come to mind.
- LEARN FACEBOOK’S MISSION: “To give people the power to share and make the world more open and connected.” That’s it. Every Facebook employee knows that mission statement by heart and can repeat it on call. Facebook was never intended to be a media source. Before I Share, Like, or Click on anything, I’m trying to think about whether what I’m doing will help heal or further polarize our country?
- MAKE FRIENDS – both on and off-line – who hold political views that are different from yours. There’s so much emotion fueling this conversation these days that you might need to practice talking to strangers on-line rather that to risk close relationships. I would also suggest that you start talking with the people I have come to think of as “leaners.” They may “lean” to the right or “lean” to the left, but we can talk because we’ve learned to listen to and learn from each other – rather than to just debate and stroke our own egos.
- RESIST TEMPTATION. Quite often I open a link to a website or a YouTube that is really, really funny … but is also something that would most definitely inflame some of my “other-leaning” friends. I will admit that in those cases I might share it with the choir (ie. those folks who share my “leanings” and need some comic relief) but even that I do carefully knowing that it really does give the other “side” more ammunition.
- WATCH OUT FOR “PARTISAN ZOMBIES.” I’m not sure how widespread that term might be because the first time I ever heard it used was in a blog post by Michael Lind. He explains the difference between the two strains of Zombies this way: “Ordinary zombies eat the brains of other people. Partisan zombies eat their own brains.” “A partisan zombie, Lind writes, “is someone who uncritically adopts, as a personal credo, the current platform of the Democratic or Republican Party in its entirety. Partisan zombies come in two types: checklist conservatives and litmus-test liberals.” I will occasionally try to engage one of these people in rational conversation – but it’s never been very productive and I’ve always ended up more frustrated than when I started. http://thesmartset.com/attack-of-the-partisan-zombies/
- BE INTENTIONAL: Create your own filter bubble in your own unique shade of purple. Before you click on anything, ask yourself if it truly represents who you want to be in the world. Slow down. Think before you share.
- SLOW DOWN! Take time to reflect and listen. As yourself WHY? It might be a good idea to keep a journal where you can process your own thoughts before you share them with the world. John Dewey said “We do not learn from experience; we learn from reflecting on experience.”
- And finally … USE THE TOOLS that are built into Facebook for just this purpose. I was always afraid to click on “Report Post” under the little V to the right of each post. I was never sure what would happen and I didn’t want to get anyone in trouble. Now I know that’s not the case. In fact, it’s interactive and asks you questions about the post you are reporting. At the end there’s even a place that looks like you can write a comment, but the last time I tried that didn’t work. Since I know that Facebook is a work in progress, I’m thinking the day will come when there will be real people who are trained to answer those comments. For the time being, however, it looks like we are still just communicating with a giant ALGORITHM.
Since I’ve been thinking along these lines, it seems like every day I run into more people, websites, and other resources that are specifically designed to bridge the gap between the two sides in this civil war. Below are some I’ve found recently – and I would love for you to suggest others in the comments.
My first suggestion is that you take time to watch this 20 minute YouTube interview with Jonathan Haidt, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Religion and Politics (2013)
Here are some other resources that have shown up since I started thinking this way. Please feel free to comment or add some of your own ….
CIVIL POLITICS: “Our mission at CivilPolitics.org is to educate groups and individuals who are trying to bridge moral divisions by connecting them with scientific research in this domain.”
GREEN TEA COALITION This one just came to my attention recently and seems to be a movement within the Republican party of people concerned about environmental issues.
PROGRESSIVE CHRISTIANITY AND POLITICS This is a closed group “for people who are politically and theologically progressive to discuss spirituality, theology, politics and policies for the betterment of the world.” I just joined it this morning … so, as with everything I’m posting here, I don’t have much experience with it. I will edit as I feel I need to as I get more information.
BALANCED NEWS SOURCES:
ALL SIDES.COM My friend Shari Litsey recommended this one in the comments to this post on Facebook. It looks like a great place to get both sides of every story.
THE WEEK MAGAZINE We subscribe to the print version of this magazine and my husband reads much of it on-line as well. It summarizes op-ed pieces from the right, left, and center after each story and also gives deep background on some of the most important issus of the week. I like it because it give an overview of what’s happening around the world in pop culture, real estate, entertainment and the arts as well as in politics.
Red Feed / Blue Feed (The Guardian)
Wall Street Journal: Blue Feed / Red Feed (Wall Street Journal)
APPS: I’m not listing anything here yet since I don’t use my cellphone for news. However, my friend Clint Phillips has been trying to get me to use two Twitter apps that help him follow particular members of Congress and issues that he’s interested it. I’ll post them as soon as I figure them out!
High Tech / High Touch: Technology and the Search for Meaning. John Naisbitt (1999)
Waking Up in Time: Finding Inner Peace in Times of Accelerating Change Peter Russell (1998 and 2008)
Thank You for Being Late: An Optimist’s Guide for Thriving in the Age of Acceleration Thomas L. Friedman (2016)
CURRICULUM: Clint Phillips tagged me on a Facebook post this morning and it made me realize that I want to add another category to this list. While I believe that it’s important to work with people “across the aisle,” it also occurs to me that it might be easier for our Senators to do that in Congress that than it is for us in our own living rooms. Watching the Senate hearing yesterday made me “see purple” in a way. As I watched Republicans and Democrats asking well crafted, probing questions in order to get to the truth made me realize that our system really does still work. Complex, systemic change, however, takes time … and can be very frustrating. One way that I keep from becoming overwhelmed is to focus on the future – on the “leaders-in-training” who will be in charge 20+ years from now … in the year 2040. I hope to see many more programs like this one and will add them to this category as I become aware of them. Feel free to make suggestions!