Rational Expectations: Go easy on bashing the ‘antisocial’ media

By: |
January 15, 2021 5:30 AM

It is easy to say Twitter and Facebook reinforce your bias, but people need to take some responsibility as well

By its very nature, social media allows anyone to post anything—any action on a post can only be post-facto—while a newspaper/TV editor controls what gets published. (Representative image)

Given the widespread disgust with defeated US president Donald Trump’s lies, fake news and bigotry over the years—even before he encouraged his supporters to ransack the Capitol—most were happy to see Twitter banning Trump for life. Several others, though happy with the ban on Trump, are unhappy with the power this gave the likes of Jack Dorsey or Mark Zuckerberg as they could—and can—suspend people’s accounts, even throw them out, without any clarity on why this takes place and how it can be remedied (more on this later).

It is, of course, interesting that while Twitter started flagging Trump’s tweets for bias several months ago, his final expulsion took place after a joint session of Congress ratified Joe Biden’s victory; would Twitter have done the same thing had Trump managed to stay on as president?

Many have taken the opportunity to slam what is increasingly being called ‘antisocial media’ and argued that, through their collection of data and then using this in an algorithm, they reinforce hatred and bigotry (fake news is another problem, and more on that later). So, the argument goes, if the social profiling by the algorithm identifies you as a misogynist, chances are a lot of the stories on your timeline will be about how women get it wrong or are responsible for some problem or the other; ditto for Muslim-haters, white supremacists, etc.

Blaming social media for reinforcing your prejudice, though, is a bit much. After all, so many people reading only a particular newspaper or watching only a certain TV channel also reinforces a bias if the news/views on it are slanted in a certain way. And it is all very well to say social media should also give you the opposite side of the story—say, one on how Republicans are pro-India while Democrats are anti-India—in your timeline, but surely people can make a little effort to find such news/views themselves? And how often is it that your newspaper/TV gives you the opposite side of the same story/article on the same day?

Indeed, while the algorithm is reviled, the fact is we all use algorithms all the time, we just don’t call them that. When tens of thousands, even lakhs, of news stories are generated each day, how are you to present them to the reader? Put them in a big dump and invite the reader to sort them out? Clearly not, and newspaper/TV editors sort/rank them for you every day, based on what they think is important and also keeping in mind reader preferences; sounds suspiciously like an algorithm!

Indeed, even if we were to say that each time a story is pushed into your timeline, it is incumbent to show one called Opposite View, this too requires some kind of ranking. After all, if there are 50 stories on how Democrats are good for India, one of them will have to be shown first, another second, etc. You can argue the algorithm needs to be tweaked to perform better, but you can’t deny the need for an algorithm.

The algorithm is critical not just for news, but most things. If Google needs to show you ads to make money—to sustain the free email, YouTube, etc, that you use—would you rather it showed you ads of industrial machinery or of the phones it felt you may buy given you read so many phone reviews? In the case of Netflix, when there are thousands of movies and TV shows to choose from, wouldn’t you rather the ones you were most likely to enjoy were pushed up on the screen first; most phones can accommodate nine movie titles in one screen. Without the algorithm, you can spend hours searching for a movie/show.

Put this way, it would appear the problem with social media is really the ease with which fake news gets proliferated and is then used to reinforce prejudices. As the disclaimers attached to Trump’s tweets showed, social media firms are trying to find solutions to the problem. While we may think the solutions are not good enough, finding them isn’t easy either. To use the example of the Punjab farmers’ agitation in the capital right now, there are so many versions of whether the farmers are being hurt by the new laws, it is difficult to counter them immediately; and it would be this way regardless of whether social media existed.

None of this is to say that social media doesn’t need to find ways to counter the propaganda being spread via its platforms—but so do newspapers and television channels—and one way to do that is to, as Trump envisaged even if for the wrong reasons, remove the indemnity shield these firms enjoy. Once social media can be sued for the content on its platform, it will spend even more effort to curb fake news/views in quite the same way newspaper/TV editors do. Of course, the rules can’t be exactly the same because, by its very nature, social media allows anyone to post anything—any action on a post can only be post-facto—while a newspaper/TV editor controls what gets published.

This leaves the issue of the power that Twitter/Facebook—and now Apple!—have to throw people off their platforms. Since these platforms are seen as the modern equivalent of the public square, outrage against this appears justifiable. But if you had ‘interoperability’ and people could easily move all their tweets/posts quickly from Twitter or Facebook to Parler or Gab, then people would have more viable options to work with; after all, no one thinks they have a natural right to be published in The Times of India even if it is India’s largest-selling English-language newspaper because there are other alternatives available. In any case, once these platforms lose their protection as a ‘public square’, it is unreasonable to expect them to offer the same unfettered access to everyone either.


Twitter: @thesuniljain

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