Facebook, Google, and the political dance

*Illustration by David Kenyon

As a newcomer to the American lifestyle and its political machinations, I have been amazed by a number of factors. The marathon race to tie down a party nomination, the exorbitant amount of cash used not only for self promotion but to smear rivals, and, in this recent race, the ability to get away with outright lies, hollow factless statements, and hot aired accusations without being held accountable or questioned. Where did accountability go? Having lived in what people call ‘developing countries’ (Cameroon, Ghana, Ivory Coast, Kenya, and Sierra Leone), I have seen a diverse spectrum of politicians - those who wax sweet nothings, those who pillage their country’s coffers, and those who believe in their people and invest in building their countries. I was never brought up to believe that the West had it right and all figured out, but for across the water I saw tribunals, live debates, and a general trust in the systems. Was accountability among politicians ever here?

It’s become ever more present to me during this polarizing election period here in the United States of America. With the world shifting toward true global connectivity, somehow, individual mindsets in various countries are shifting towards nationalism, from the Brexit vote to the banning of Burqas on the beach. In my eyes, the solution to making this shift to true connectivity and understanding is happening in large metropolises where everyone is thrust together. Connectivity and understanding happens through experimentation and intimacy with different cultures - food, music, sports, introductions, sheer proximity on a daily basis and psychological osmosis. Shouldn’t we celebrate diversity and comprehend that people can have opposing points of views? Sadly not, because not everyone lives in bustling centers where multiple cultures merge and melt.

With the average young adult spending more than 20 hours a week plugged in, of which 23%, as of 2014, is spent on social media networks, this number will only continue to grow. We are becoming very reliant on our feeds and online searches for information to learn more about unfolding events locally and abroad, and by having our results tailored to our needs and desires - our views - I fear, will only start to drift us further apart from one another. Slowly causing more friction, reducing our understanding, and limiting - even reducing our ability to empathize with other netizens.

Shouldn’t the digital world make us question our assumptions and opinions to mentally and physically bring us together and grow? With the advent of the digital world, we can become closer as the gaps created by distance and time disappear. This in turn enables us to meet more people in less time and get accustomed to the fact that different points of view can exist in tandem with one another and shouldn’t be met with violence and hatred?

Facebook and Google are quickly becoming - if not already are - the gatekeepers of how we see, learn and discover information on the internet. Our clicks, impressions, and views are what help them build better pictures of who we are, which they then use to tailor advertisements and make money. They enable us to increase our propensity to become more insular through this tailoring, giving us the false pretense that we are right and that those with contrasting opinions are wrong.

One of Google’s core values is ‘the need for information crosses all borders’. The word ‘borders’ refers to more than the physical world. I interpret them as being our mental limits, things that prevent us from seeing or accessing the other side. By breaking down these mental boundaries and building connections to the other side through information, we can grow. By hiding behind the statement that their results are ‘just a reflection’, leads down a very slippery slope. This is the ‘loudest-in-the-room-rules’ rule, which isn’t always right, because, where are the checks and balances? Where are the debates and discussions? We have seen this happen multiple times in history and it has always lead humanity down very dark paths.

One of Facebook’s core values is ‘Build Social Value’.

[Social Value] (…) concept which includes social capital as well as the subjective aspects of the citizens’ well-being, such as their ability to participate in making decisions that affect them.” - Business Dictionary

The key takeaway is the last phrase - “their ability to participate in making decisions that affect them.” I view this as a statement promising to enable the spread of necessary information that helps us become more educated and increase our understanding of the world so we can make the decisions that enable us to move toward a more connected society. Helping us better empathize with opposite minded individuals ultimately give everyone a stronger ability to make better decisions surrounding matters that affect us?

By being the future gatekeepers of information, I feel that there there is a key quandary they need to think about:

Are we (Facebook and Google) surfacing content that offers up diversity and causes people to question their opinions and assumptions, or are we surfacing the best results that cater to that individual’s preset opinions, assumptions and the general view of the web?

This quandary doesn’t mean that they have to take sides in terms of the party affiliation, information source, or final opinion, but that they help us along the route to discover and make sense of the wild web. This could, and hopefully should, permeate out of the digital realm into the real world.

There should be a push to encourage a shift from the large gatekeepers to help us unlock greater levels of understanding, which will lead us to become more tolerant, more accepting and ultimately more connected to one another, because as individuals we can only go so far.

I believe in trying to achieve a digital world that influences our physical world for the better. We have made the first step by freeing up information and making it accessible for the masses. The next step is building an overarching single community where, even though there are smaller more diverse groups within, there is an understanding between all parties through discussions and constant questioning of opinions and assumptions.

However there is no silver bullet, and I foresee this being a multi-pronged initiative. We would first need to get comfortable questioning our opinions and building up from peripheral pieces to things closer to home.

The quickest to implement yet the hardest to drive, would be to try to encourage people to do more research, reading, and discovery on their own time - personal self development if you will. The downside is that a high level of personal will power and discomfort is needed in order for this to happen, someone would need to see the direct benefit of going through these changes, and also have the appetite and mindset to want to know more.

The shift would have to occur with everyone firstly getting accustomed to questioning their assumptions, and then building on this foundation to bring the material to more pertinent topics.

One way to do this is through games. I recently played a game called Timeline where you guess that year of an invention based off the other cards on the table, the longer you play the tougher it gets. While playing this game you are learning and discovering the wide gap between your assumptions and the facts. This kind of questioning of peripheral assumptions allows you to get comfortable with feeling uneasy and unsure while pushing you to think. The build up from just creating you to question your assumptions is to provide the framework for you to learn more about the facts at hand so you can familiarize and understand how things came to be.

At the end of the day facts and opinions are two very different pieces, but by starting with information grounded in facts that build the base for questioning, we can progress to less fixed items like opinions once we have been able to let go of a bit of our ego.

This needs to be a roundabout way because of the backfire effect.
When someone tries to correct you, tries to dilute your misconceptions, it backfires and strengthens those misconceptions instead. Over time, the backfire effect makes you less skeptical of those things that allow you to continue seeing your beliefs and attitudes as true and proper. (…) When you start to pull out facts and figures, hyperlinks and quotes, you are actually making the opponent feel even surer of his position than before you started the debate. As he matches your fervor, the same thing happens in your skull. The backfire effect pushes both of you deeper into your original beliefs. David McRaney

And that is why the direct, heated discussions raging on in the comment sections of articles and op-eds online never end up changing anyone’s mind.

But what makes this especially worrisome is that in the process of exerting effort on dealing with the cognitive dissonance produced by conflicting evidence, we actually end up building new memories and new neural connections that further strengthen our original convictions. Maria Popova

However, not all is lost. From what I can safely assume, there are two ways to route around the backfire effect.

One is to play into the deep curiosity we humans have. A heated discussion only makes us hunker down as someone starts attacking our ideas. But, if we are in a calmer inquisitive headspace, with new information surfaced to us as insightful or helpful and at the right time, I believe we will be more receptive to it. This could be done digitally by looking for signals from an individual’s interactions with the web and at the moments of inquiry and search, present counter arguments - similar to ‘related articles’ sections on many sites today as a start. Facebook has something interesting that shows how many of your friends like a brand when it’s a sponsored ad, This builds familiarity, between the ad and the viewer, because clearly if Jeremie liked those shoes, and Jeremie is cool, I want them too. This feature could be rejigged to show how many friends or people in your area, have viewed a counter article which would lead to more acceptance of the information presented.

The second way was demonstrated by Benjamin Franklin back in the 1730s. He managed to turn people who disliked him into dear friends. How was he able to do this? He would ask to borrow a book from them that he deemed was very rare and interesting. A few weeks later he would send the book back with a thank you note. He was able to change his haters self perception of himself.

Benjamin Franklin’s enemy observed himself performing a generous and positive act by offering the treasured tome to his rival, and then he unconsciously explained his own behavior to himself. He must not have hated Franklin after all, he thought; why else would he do something like that? David McRaney

Using this to our advantage, the way we share and help each other online can be used to change our perceptions of one another. Instead of slugging it out in direct keyboard battles, we can modify our handling of situations to bring new information to light to other people. Starting with surfacing content from people of different mindsets that overlap with your own - music, memes, sport teams, and other positive pieces that you hold dear, can create bonds and help make people feel more connected, understood, and accepting.

“Our thoughts become our words, our words become our actions, our actions become our character, our character becomes our destiny.” - Ghandi

By building off the framework established by questioning our assumptions while combining them with curiosity and the Benjamin Franklin Effect, we can slowly start to unlock the doors to a more understanding world. As we spend more time online with connections being built to aide our perception of one another, we subconsciously take steps to move away from insular close-minded groups to open-minded communities where we can make better decisions around events and actions that affect us all.


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