- Norman Young
Social Media Tribalism - Who's at Fault?
Today, Donald Trump joined the chorus of conservatives who complain about their mistreatment by Big Tech and social media mega-corporations. Some of these complaints are valid. Blatant viewpoint discrimination does exist, and such cases seem to disproportionately affect the Right. But corporations are not really at fault for this. Corporations, like democratic governments, are reflections of the people. The source of problematic media algorithms is not a set of ideological overlords, it's us.
Social media platforms are in the business of keeping people connected and happy. Connectedness and happiness are often at cross purposes, especially during election seasons. Everyone knows somebody from across the political aisle, and in polite company we usually agree to talk about something other than politics. But when we are connected on social media, otherwise private political musings jump out and slap us in the face. We often "block" or "unfriend" the offender, sometimes regardless of life-long personal acquaintance.
Social media companies have developed complex algorithms to minimize this blocking phenomenon. Based on data they gather about you, these companies preemptively hide posts they think you'll hate from appearing on your screen, and promote posts they think you'll like. By doing this, they are ensuring that you remain a happy and connected user. Because most major media platforms originated in coastal cities, their original user base typically skews heavily to the Left. This means that conservatives who join these platforms initially have an uphill battle to disseminate information that the media company's primary demographic finds distressing. We the People are the source of our own problem. We are the ones who find it comfortable to remain in our ideological bubbles. Through our petty complaints, we have demanded that our corporate overlords create for us a soft tyranny that protects our fragile opinions. Alexis deTocqueville might be surprised that our self-imposed tyranny did not come through government, but he would not be surprised that it has come:
"the supreme power ... covers the surface of society with a network of small complicated rules, minute and uniform, through which the most original minds and the most energetic characters cannot penetrate, to rise above the crowd. The will of man is not shattered, but softened, bent, and guided; men are seldom forced by it to act, but they are constantly restrained from acting. Such a power ... compresses, enervates, extinguishes, and stupefies a people, till each nation is reduced to nothing better than a flock of timid and industrious animals, of which the government is the shepherd ... they console themselves for being in tutelage by the reflection that they have chosen their own guardians. Every man allows himself to be put in leading-strings, because he sees that it is not a person or a class of persons, but the people at large who hold the end of his chain."