Tag Archives: Facebook

The Science of Social Media is a False Dilemma


Author Gary Moreau, aka Avam Hale in fiction

On the Internet, fake news and spurious intent are all the rage. The Russians are allegedly promoting it. Congress is investigating it. The alt-right is accused of it. Antifa, too. All of the evil “-ists” are polluting the world with it.

And we have science to blame. Or, more precisely, the scientific world view, which I, to be clear, fully embrace.

The scientific method is the progeny of deductive reasoning. It is the world of cause and effect. Data, and the patterns that reside within it, are its fuel and its purpose. Gather data; analyze it; discern the patterns; and apply them to larger and/or related questions and issues.

We call it intelligent reason. And while it is just what it claims to be, it will ultimately bring down the Internet and the culture and the economy we have built around it. The global economy will collapse. Geo-politics will be in turmoil. Culture itself will implode. And, yes, anarchy will prevail.

Why?

It’s simple, really. It is the duality—the paradox, if you will—of knowledge and its role in the acquisition of power. Knowledge liberates and oppresses. Knowledge is both the beginning and the end of the human tragedy of domination and enslavement.

The promise of the Internet is the promise of universal influence—the liberation of the influenced; the powerful and unstoppable rise of the everyperson. Everyone, in theory, gets a voice. Even Barney, sitting in his pajamas in Four Bears Village, North Dakota.


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It’s now obvious, however, that having a voice is not the same as being heard. Influence is peddled not by those with a voice, but those voices that hold sway over the crowd.

Knowledge is acquired. It does not emerge spontaneously. It is granted, passed along, and used to create an impression. It is the essence of influence. And it can be weaponized.

The idea of Russian propaganda operatives buying political ads on Facebook is easy to condemn, although it was obviously not so easy to detect and will be difficult to stamp out in the future. And this, in the end, will inevitably prove to be the tip of the iceberg of fake news and unsubstantiated influence.

Reasoned intelligence holds that knowledge is factual—it is both singular and all-inclusive. The reality of science, we believe, is one-dimensional; it can be discovered and shared through scientific discovery and affirmed through peer review.

What we call scientific truth, however, is often a false dilemma. Reality is seldom digital. It comes in many shades and can rarely be captured or expressed by either/or selections. And the fact that language itself is a mythical invention, not common to the universe like carbon and hydrogen, further compounds the problem and the risk.

Inevitably, the umbrella of fake news is expanded to include news that is misleading, unsubstantiated, or promotes a perspective that does not enjoy consensus. (Or it enjoys the consensus of the wrong people.)

Words become weaponized. And where there are weapons, there are armies. Information arms the conflict. And the world, via the Internet, becomes a battlefield without dimension or borders.

War ensues, and eventually the gatekeepers of information—Google, Facebook, Amazon, Twitter, etc.—are drawn into the battle. Divisions and defenses harden. The ante escalates. The apocalypse emerges.

It’s already happening. People are angry. They are disturbed. And it’s not some people, some of the time. It’s everyone, all of the time. Hate and frustration are 24/7. There are no holidays. There is no etiquette. Everyone and everything is fair game.

Facebook, for its alleged acceptance of Russian propaganda, is the current ground zero of the battle. But Google came under attack during the 2016 presidential election for allegedly helping Hillary Clinton through its all-powerful search algorithms, potentially influencing public opinion in a way the Russian propagandists can only dream of. (Google denies the accusations.)

Twitter has now joined the fray, recently blocking a video ad of Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-TN) because of its “inflammatory” reference to her opposition to the sale of fetal tissue for medical research. Amazon, for its part, allegedly removed customer reviews of Hilary Clinton’s new book, What Happened, that were unfavorable, driving the average customer rating for the book, which had hovered just above three stars in the early hours of public availability, up to the maximum five stars (4.8), where it remains.

To be clear, each of these companies states adamantly that they are politically neutral and, in the case of perceived censorship, are merely enforcing clear and established policy. And there is little doubt that they could, and likely will have to, mount an effective defense of their actions in a court of law.

But the court of law is not the court of public opinion. Will the sheep see the shepherd and his dog for what they are. And what will be the shepherd’s reaction? Will he give the sheep freedom or will he train another dog?

None of which has anything to do with evil intent. All intent is dichotomal. It is neither good nor bad; it is merely intent. The giant tech companies are NOT evil empires. They simply can’t help themselves and are likely unconscious of any corporate bias and influence. We have simply and voluntarily given them a degree of power that no person or institution in history has been able to wield without favor and bias. It is beyond our abilities. We are, by nature and nurture, creatures, both personal and institutional, drawn to influence—as both givers and takers.

At the heart of all things online is the algorithm, named after the ninth century mathematician, Muhammad ibn-Musa al-Khwarizmi. The magic of Facebook, Google, Amazon and Twitter is the magic of algorithms, digital computations that provide answers to questions like those asked of a search engine or used to determine a ranking. They are not calculations, however, in the same sense that 2+2=4 is. They can answer a question but they are not inherently truthful. They can approximate truth, but hold no dominion over it.

Franklin Foer, the author of the seminal book, World Without Mind, makes the astute and far-reaching observation that, “The problem is that when we outsource thinking to machines, we are really outsourcing thinking to the organizations that run the machines.” All people have a perspective; all coders are people; all algorithms are inherently biased in one direction or another.

In the case of the Internet, moreover, the algorithm and the potential bias it empowers is hidden away from public scrutiny under the guise of intellectual property. Google does not tell us how it conducts its searches. Facebook doesn’t tell us the whole story as to how it loads our news feed or populates our potential friends list.

The bias feeds on itself. The meaning of words becomes more and more rigid and more partisan. Opinions harden. We seek shelter not just from aggressive behaviors but from thought that makes us uncomfortable or we do not wish to hear. We run for the shelter of safe places and safe friends who see the world just as we do. We demand that content providers provide trigger warnings so we can easily avoid content that we may not find comfortable to even be aware of.

It is no surprise, really, that social media is no longer social. A Tweet is both a witty meme and a cudgel with which to shame and destroy. Facebook is a community both to enjoy and to manipulate.

Reality isn’t even real any more. Selfies are staged and digitally altered. Even the social celebrities themselves complain that reality has been lost. Kim Kardashian, photographed while on holiday and allegedly without the services of her digital stylists, complained on national television recently that the picture taken and posted online is not of the “real” her. It’s her face and body, but it is not the allegedly digital body that her notoriety is built upon. “Like, I literally don’t look like this!”

The problem is not fake news. The problem is that technology has unleashed artificial forces that will eventually spiral out of control. Reality will become less and less real. Divisions will be hardened. The tech giants will more and more be forced to take sides. Divisions will harden further. Language and visual media will be further weaponized. The government will not have the courage or the political capital to step in.

Social media will implode. The stock market will crash. The world economy will come tumbling down. The post-apocalyptic dystopia, once the stuff of Netflix and video games, will be very real indeed.

If you doubt that, I challenge you to this simple test: Identify one single person who has a workable way to keep unsubstantiated information off the Internet. It can’t be done. Truth is, more often than not, a false dilemma. You will have your truth; I will have mine; but at some level each will be half of a duality.

In an article dated October 7, 2017, Bloomberg quoted Alex Stamos, Facebook’s chief security officer, saying “It’s very difficult to spot fake news and propaganda using just computer programs,” warning that the fake news problem is far more complicated and dangerous than the public thinks and Congress would have us believe. Adding people, of course, otherwise called censors, will only make the problem worse.

If we need more evidence we have only to look at the challenge facing China, which already has one of the most heavily regulated and censored social media spaces in the world. According to Bloomberg, “the country’s [China’s] social media employ technology and armies of vetters to scour its services for undesirable content, which in China’s case goes beyond rumors and unsubstantiated claims to include any and all information deemed harmful to social stability. Yet even the best-funded online operators have difficulty keeping up…”

“The problem persists despite China having some of the strictest rules aimed at preventing the spread of ‘false news,’ ” Bloomberg continues. The Chinese government, in reaction, has established regulations forcing forum-posters to register with their real identities and threatening jail time for posting defamatory false information, two fairly straight forward regulations that seem unfathomable in the US.

Fake news is a problem with no solution because the digital space, in the end, is not organic to the universe. The Internet is a human convention in the same way that language is. We made it up.

In the case of the online world, however, there is only one and it spans the globe, empowering friend and foe alike. And we have integrated it so far into our economy, our culture, and our institutions of learning and commerce, the inevitable exposure of its fallacy will bring everything crashing down.

As a human convention, the Internet is, by definition, a scientific fraud. It is built on a human consensus that has no basis in the natural universe. Within such a world, truth itself is ultimately a false dilemma that will eventually be exposed for what it is; a convention of human thought that exists in a context; and which context is defined by an unavoidably biased perspective.

The promise of the Internet was that it would overcome the manipulative power of influence. In the end, however, it has merely empowered it. And it will continue to empower it to the point where influence brings about its own destruction.

The Internet has nuclearized influence. The post-apocalyptic dystopia cannot be far behind.

header photo credit: iStock.com/mediaphotos

You may contact the author at gary@gmoreau.com
Visit my personal blog at www.gmoreau.com


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Social Media

There is little daydreaming in China. You are either sleeping, working, or on your smartphone or tablet, sometimes, in the case of the latter two, at the same time.

By its very name, social media is considered to be social in nature. It allows family and friends to stay in touch and build tighter bonds. It allows new communities to be formed around common interests. It binds a world that has become increasingly isolated and independent.

In theory, therefore, social media should be bringing China and America closer together at the most basic level – the individual. That doesn’t appear to be happening, however. In fact, I would argue, social media, form my observation, is pushing the two countries further and further apart.

It is true, of course, that most American social media (e.g. Twitter, Facebook, YouTube) is not accessible in China because it is blocked by the government’s giant Internet firewall.

There are, nonetheless, Chinese counterparts to all of these forms of social media that are, in fact, more geared toward Chinese norms of communication and the Chinese worldview.

The Chinese publicly defend their restrictions on Internet independence. They don’t want to be invaded by foreign tech companies any more than they wanted to be invaded by foreign armies.

But I sincerely believe that there is more than one reason why the Chinese approach to regulation of the Internet is the right one – at least for China at this point in time.

The first is that the Internet is truth and content neutral. While small innovative companies are capable of making far-reaching positive impact on society at large with much faster speed, the reverse is also true. Lies can be spread at the speed of electrons. People who wish to harm us can leash its power to organize our destruction as easily and quickly as those who wish to enlighten and inform us.

Without the education necessary to challenge perceived authority, seemingly convincing rhetoric, and unsubstantiated claims, unleashing the Internet completely is akin to uncaging all of the lions at the zoo. Theoretically ‘right’ in a moral sense, perhaps, but pragmatically dangerous, potentially bordering on disaster.

The biggest challenge I see to social media, however, is the reinforcement it gives the American transmitter style of communication that I have talked about many times before. (The speaker bears responsibility for getting his point across.) What is a Tweet if not a transmission? It is a one-way communication between a Tweeter and a follower.

Ditto for posting what you had for lunch on Facebook. We aren’t being social in the least. We are transmitting in the very same way that Tokyo Rose did during WWII.

And while grandma and grandpa can now watch their grandchild take their first steps on YouTube, is that what YouTube is predominantly used for? Somehow I doubt it.

And this doesn’t even to begin to address the issue of truth and veracity. It reminds me of the early days of the computer. Whatever came out was almost always accepted as truth. Computers, after all, are technically incapable of errors in calculation. But then someone discovered that errors in calculation weren’t the problem to begin with and coined the phrase “garbage in, garbage out.”

An old friend of mine was fond of quoting the saying, “Are you listening to respond or listening to understand?” Social media, without a doubt, is built on the former. It’s all about traffic, not thought. It’s all about transmitting and fame comes not from the quality of the transmissions but the number of people who are willing to accept them, whether out of true interest or their social acceptance.

In short, I believe social media is rapidly deteriorating our ability to listen. Like the difference between activity and results, we are transmitting more but learning less.

And to make matters ever worse, the corporate world is now taking over. Every major corporation in America has an entire division devoted to following and working social media on its behalf. There’s always been corporate advertising, of course, but in the past you had to turn on the television or radio or pick up a magazine. And the advertising was obvious.

The commercial presence in our lives is far more invasive and far less obvious today. We don’t, in fact, even know when it’s there. There is an army of social media ‘influencers’, as they’re commonly known, who will deliver your corporate message for a fee. Now, of course, they claim moral boundaries. But so did the doctors who endorsed cigarettes as good for your health or the doctors who support the mega-industry of health and diet supplements, many of which may be effective, but are as yet unproven.

And it is rapidly deteriorating our communities and the social networks that connect us together at the grass roots level. About the only thing most Americans share with their neighbors these days is the day of garbage collection.

Just look at the newscast of the capture of the latest serial killer, or a gunman who just killed innocent people in a shopping mall or movie theater. What is the first thing the network does? They interview the neighbors. And what do the neighbors inevitably say? “I had no idea. I didn’t know him that well but he seemed like such a nice, quiet man.”

Never would such an exchange have taken place in the neighborhood where I grew up, where we not only didn’t have social media but we actually shared the same phone line. There are pros and cons to both extremes, of course, but I, for one, would accept the extreme where my neighbors know my business than the one in which my neighbor is about to go on a shooting rampage at the local university.

Of course the Chinese are as wired in as the Americans. Get on the subway here and at least 90% of the people are on their smartphones or tablets. Out of curiosity, however, I recently began walking up and down the subway cars to surreptitiously discover what they were actually doing.

And what I’ve found, and I am the fist to admit it is a totally unscientific survey, is that most people are either playing games or watching streaming movies or music videos. Frankly, that was a big aha for me. That’s not at all what I expected.

But it makes sense. When you are receiver oriented, and the receiver is deciding what to listen to or not, face to face is a far more powerful form of communication than a 20-word Tweet from some famous person I will never meet in my lifetime.

And part of the reason for that, I believe, is that the Chinese versions of American social media are all built with Chinese characteristics. They are, in short, less transmitter oriented and more receiver oriented, as is the natural communication style of most Asian cultures.

In China they have WeChat, not unlike America’s Twitter, but it is built around communities, not Tweeters and followers. There are virtual communities, but they are two-way communities, in which members equally communicate, fostering both the transmission of knowledge and the development of the ability to listen.

It is, in short, a medium for recreating the collectivist village in an urbanizing environment. And that, to my way of thinking, is a very good use indeed of technology. THAT is truly social media.

Legal Notice:  The title graphic is for editorial use only and the property of Twin Design/Shutterstock.com

Receiver oriented communicators seem more incline to sit down and chat over a friendly game of cards than to post to the world how well they slept the night before.
Receiver oriented communicators seem more inclined to sit down and chat over a friendly game of cards than to post to the world how well they slept the night before.

View the author’s literary work written under the pen name of Avam Hale. Both books are available at Amazon and most major online retailers in both electronic and print formats.

Copyright © 2015 Glassmaker in China

Notice:  The views expressed in this post are strictly those of the writer acting in a personal capacity.  They are not in any way endorsed or sanctioned by his employer or any other individual with which he may be personally or professionally affiliated.