My small town is in the midst of a political season. Candidates are fighting tooth and nail through the primaries at present, and the county schools are trying to pass a bond levy to maintain adequate funding.
In West Virginia, schools can secure funding above the state minimum through the passage of a special levy on property values. The voters of the county elect to pay extra taxes in support of the school system because our state legislature is not fully and adequately funding education. Every six years, the voters of my county hold a referendum on the education system.
Education funding has entered the realm of political debate as a result, and this has had a profound impact on decision making at the school and county level. I think that the what I have observed surrounding social media’s impact on decision making this election season bears consideration.
I’m a member of the citizen committee tasked with campaigning on behalf of the school levy. I attend weekly meetings to discuss political strategy, and these discussion begin with a briefing on the current state of opposition. I imagine before the ubiquity of social media, these discussions centered on conversations with friends, families, and acquaintances. It is doubtful that small town issue campaigns ever did any scientific polling. But in these modern times, the focal point of these strategy meetings is Facebook chatter.
We have a committee whose job is to address misinformation on Facebook.
For reasons that I don’t understand, all of the people I come into contact with believe that Facebook rants, comments, and likes are an accurate representation of public opinion. Facebook has caused the separation of ideas from merit. A lack of facts is no longer grounds for dismissal of an opinion. Members of the community seem to be heard regardless of credibility. When the small voices of a town are aggregated into a cesspool of negativity, only those who shout loudest are heard. The more bombastic the opinion, the more likely it is that it will be commented on, and the more a post is commented on, the more it is seen. Facebook’s goal is not to promote valuable or valid perspectives. Facebook’s goal is to capture attention and keep it. It’s no wonder that factual and unsurprising information ends up at the bottom of news feeds.
The Facebook Fallacy is arguing that an idea posted on social media is valid because it is written, liked, commented on, and publicly visible. This is flawed logic, and making institutional decisions based on the appearance of Facebook commentary is harmful to western democracy. Let me explain by way of example.
The students at my school hosted a memorial service on the anniversary of the Columbine shooting. What began as an opportunity for high school students to publicly acknowledge that they are afraid of being shot while attending school, was co-opted by political debate concerning gun rights.
When news of the student led rally leaked out to the public, Facebook lit up, and people worked to organize a protest of the event. Liberal students organized a counter protest in response.
After a few days, what started as a memorial to the victims of school shootings, ended up a political battle between ideologies.
The rally was on a Friday. That Monday I walked into our local grocery store, and the man behind the counter, a retired school employee, asked me what I thought of the student protests.
I believe that students should have the right to organize, send a message, and participate in the political systems of this country. I think they should have a right to their voice, unimpeded by the efforts of cowardly, cynical, and curmudgeonly adults. The young are the ones who change the world, and the ideas of the young have been discouraged by the old since time immemorial.
He declined to give his own thoughts on the subject, but I could tell by his reaction that my response surprised him.
The only thing that he said in reply was “there’s a lot of people talking about it on Facebook. Hope it doesn’t sink the school levy.”
The idea that the people of my home town would be so polarized by a political issue that they would organize, defund education, and punish parents through their children frightens me.
But Facebook has changed the landscape. These people are my friends and neighbors. We make eye contact and wave when we pass on the street. People leave their cars running to duck into the store for a quick purchase. Small time crimes make big time news. As long as I don’t hear about what people are saying on Facebook, I have a pretty high opinion of the people that live here.
But social media has weaponized gullibility and misinformation, and people who went ignored have found themselves bestowed with power and influence.
The United States is a representative democracy. In practice, we elect respective members of our communities to study and be briefed on the issues of the day, and make decisions accordingly. At the national level, the common man does not have time to know the intricacies of foreign diplomacy or the complexities of interstate commerce. At the local level, the citizenry is and should be concerned with maintaining their daily lives, not learning about a county school budget. But Facebook has conditioned us to believe that the opinion of everyone is equal as long as they believe that opinion to be true.
Belief in something does not negate the presence of evidence to the contrary, and not all truly held beliefs are valid. The effects of this can be seen most readily in the flat Earth movement. There are communities of people online who truly believe that the Earth is flat. And those places are wondrous for internet tourists, but they serve as excellent analogues for modern discourse on both sides of the political spectrum.
When confronted with evidence, flat Earthers have a tendency to call into question the credibility of sources. They question the motives of the person asking the questions, and they flatly ignore evidence because “they don’t believe it to be true.” These same tactics are used by everyone from anti-abortion advocacy groups to ultra left political lobbies who claim that there is no biological difference between man and woman.
In religion, belief has always been the weapon against logic, but Facebook and other content aggregators have given belief new power. In our modern internet based society, anyone can make any claim and find sources to justify it. Each side of any argument has their own sources, and the credibility of those sources comes from the confirmation bias of the reader.
As a culture, we are still adapting to the technological age. The mass audiences enjoyed by traditional broadcasters and publishers have been replaced by the micro-niche audiences of the internet. Websites and podcasts devoted to everything from obscure eighties video games to alien abductions have found notoriety and profitability while Clear Channel broadcasting cannot turn a profit and cable networks have been forced into consolidation to maintain their eminence. The gate keepers to public consciousness are dead or dying. The public attention is fragmented. Pop culture phenoms are harder to manufacture, and in the face of infinite novelty, the average person doesn’t tolerate perceived mediocrity in entertainment for even a moment
As a result, our society is extremely vulnerable to intellectual contagion. Our politicians and the Russian government seem to have realized this vulnerability. Our politicians have used it to weaken the opposing political party, and the Russians have weakened American leadership abroad.
There are only two solutions to this problem that I see. The first is an increase in cynicism and distrust. When the truth is indistinguishable from fiction, everything must be viewed with suspicion. I have seen this in my students. They simply view all sources as unreliable. They will post information and cite news sources, but if they are challenged and the source is remotely spurious, they shrug their shoulders, admit that “it’s probably fake,” and concede the argument. Because the truth has been made impossible to discern, it is simply easier to believe nothing. The natural conclusion of this preponderance of doubt is a lack of true conviction about anything, and the only thing worse than misguided belief is complete indifference.
The second solution is a renewal of the value society places on solid investigative journalism. After the 2016 election, the 24 hour cable news networks damaged their credibility severely. Colloquially, my young and educated friends have traded cable news for online investigative organizations like The Guardian and deep dive magazines like The Atlantic and Harper’s. This approach takes more time, discretion, and nuance on the part of the public. It also takes effort and interest. This approach also seems to alienate conservatives as most investigative journalism seems to come from the left. If there are equivalent factual and investigative outlets on the right side of the political spectrum, I am unaware of them.
Just like most solutions to social problems, the more beneficial solution takes more time and is a somewhat unnatural progression of current trends. But there is an opening in the news market for credible sources. Our society cries out for objective truth. The first news organization to successfully convince the whole of the public that it is credible enough to serve as an origin point for argument will become a social and business phenomena, if such a universal zeitgeist is even still possible. The difficulty comes from the corruption of success and influence. I’m not sure any wealthy news organization can stand apart from the influence of it’s shareholders and advertisers. A new revenue model will likely need to be created, and many independent news outlets are experimenting with donations from readers as a funding source.
We must resist the dissemination of untruth and the degradation of our language by those seeking to gain power by setting us at each other’s throats. Through the internet, opportunists in our society have caused words, and by extension ideas, to lack meaning. Both sides of the political spectrum are guilty. Republicans have labeled the educated as elitists and made healthcare an entitlement and Democrats have taken to calling conservatives Nazis, racists, and homophobes. And the reason that these illogical labels have been so effective as political maneuvers is because we have been told, and are willing to accept, that our neighbors with political differences are ideologues and enemies of the republic.
At the root of much of our current culture war is the idea that opinions expressed by individuals online, without the tempering influence of face to face interaction, are valid. If we solve the Facebook Fallacy, perhaps we will realize that the enemy of our country is not our neighbors. The enemy of the United States is and always has been greed.