Friday, January 1, 2016

2016, The Year of Living Dangerously

The world continues to be an interesting place.  We've made tremendous advances in healthcare and technology yet many people in the US feel more uncertain than in earlier decades.  My natural inclination was to attribute this to changing spectrum of foreign affairs or the continued need for US troops to be sent into harm's way.  However, none of those events alone seemed to adequately explain what is going on here in the US (and I would venture to say the rest of the world).

Then something occurred to me as I watched the social media feeds explode with headlines about Mr. Obama's executive orders next week in respect to guns.  Depending on how you social media newsfeed identifies you, you either get headlines about how Mr. Obama is going to use his executive powers to begin gun confiscation or how Mr. Obama is finally going to do something about the rampant gun violence in the US.

A dispassionate review of what Mr. Obama executive orders are likely to encompass are more background checks for potential gun buyers and prohibiting those on the no-fly list from buying guns.  If these are his only courses of action, then then are neither as draconian or omnipotent as the social media feeds would lead readers to believe.  And that's when it hit me, in 2016 the most dangerous thing is our social media feeds.

Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, SnapChat, etc. track our likes and clicks to develop algorithms about what we want to see in our news feeds.  Compare your Facebook feed to your spouse or friend's feed.  You're likely to see completely different ads and headlines.  We are unconsciously being manipulated by how these algorithms generate the content on our social media.

The problem is it doesn't stop with if you see an add for L.L. Bean while I see an ad for Nike, the news content on your Google and Yahoo searches are also skewed by algorithms.  Compare the news articles  between you and your siblings or children.  Information is divided up along lines of age, sex, gender, race, ethnicity, etc.  Most of this is nothing new except now the algorithms are being used by the traditional news outlets as well.

Trump is a perfect example.  Headlines about him that appear in your newsfeeed will tend to slant to however the algorithms have identified your political leanings.  By the way, the algorithms know more about us than your want to believe.  That's why I'm less likely to see articles on education reform in India than about terrorist groups in India.

The algorithms driving social media are blinding us to alternative news and analysis.  Think how quickly your newsfeed exploded about some celebrity making a racist remark, only to find out it was taken out of context or completely fabricated.  But by then, you've already made up your mind to hate that person.

Now imagine headlines only telling you that black people are organizing to attack cops or that cops kill black people are being acquitted.  Or headlines that tell you that train stations in Germany were shutdown due to credible terrorist threats, the same kind that caused Los Angeles to shutdown its public schools for a day.

2016 will be an especially dangerous year for this phenomena as we are getting to elect a new President whom our opinions about will be shaped not by thoughtful analysis but by algorithms designed to appeal to our preferences on social media.

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