With the victory of Donald J. Trump in the race to be the United States’ next president, there is an understandable amount of soul-searching going on in the sane portions of the United States (and world) populace. How is it that a man who bragged about sexual assault, said Mexican migrants were “rapists,” and repeatedly incited violence against people he didn’t like, won? There are many arguments and interpretations of how this whole mess panned out, and recently the focus has turned to the role that social media and specifically Facebook, played in the election process.
A total of 62% of adults in the United States get their news from social media, mainly from Facebook. Mark Zuckerburg’s platform has a lot of influence on people’s opinions. Having been called “the world’s most powerful editor,” many would suggest that he has a responsibility to ensure that news is at least grounded in reality, unlike much of the “fake news” that was continually spread on the platform he owns.
But while “fake news” may have had an influence on the election, there is more to it. One consequence of our devotion to social media is the echo-chamber that we inadvertently build around ourselves. With just the click of a button we can silence, ignore or unfriend that constant whirr of background noise that disagrees with our own dearly-held opinions. We know they’re wrong and we don’t want to listen to them.
Not only can we rid ourselves of opposing opinions, but Facebook gives us more of what we already believe. With its algorithms that promote things it knows we like to ensure we are more likely to see them, it buries us deeper.
This trend is not confined only to social media. In academia too, there is increasing concern about students’ refusal to engage in topics that they don’t agree with. The Brexit campaign was built not on facts but on half-truths (and lies), as they freely admitted. “Facts don’t work,” said Leave founder Aaron Banks, suggesting that Remain lost because they cited facts that people simply did not want to hear.
Marshall MacLuhan’s idea that “the medium is the message” is now more appropriate that ever. While Facebook can give us the news, it only gives us our own version. This refusal to accept other opinions is not helping enable debate and freedom in speech. Instead, we’re learning to listen to only what we want to, and this is making things worse.