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Truth decay and the public square
What does truth and democracy look like in a digital age?
What does truth and democracy look like in a digital age?
The rioters who stormed the US Capitol building believe they are completely rational citizens.
Wouldn’t you, if every source of online information you had, including from the President you voted for, was ringing the alarm bell about a stolen election?
This is not meant as an apology for the protestors or to excuse their crimes. Judging by the flags on display, many of them hold racist, prejudiced views, which we are rightly horrified by.
And we should also be clear, social media didn’t create those beliefs. The rioters may have perceived the world this way long before Mark Zuckerberg came along. But what’s different now is that events like January 6th have raised alarm bells for all democracies on how technology can create schisms in the fundamental truths that underlie our public square.
The ‘public square’ is supposed to be at the foundations of our democracy. Via our various institutions and media, the public square hosts conversation and debate on how we want to solve issues surrounding a shared set of facts in that square. This system is not perfect of course – with politicians, corporations and civil society vying to co-opt or shape the space to their advantage. But social media was supposed to be the great democratiser, giving each of us a voice and reclaiming public debate for the people. Digital social movements brought people together to overthrow dictators, expose corruption and push for social and environmental change. And as a result, social media rapidly asserted itself as the modern day public square.
A kinder view of history says that this is what these social media platforms always intended to do: create networks of like-minded individuals with shared interests. A naive view of the present maintains that fantasy. Through the incessant narrowing of our online experience to align with ‘like minds,’ democracies around the world are now coming to realise that social media didn’t democratise a shared public square. Rather, with 4.2 billion active social media users, it has created 4.2 billion public squares.
The business model of the social media platforms is to maintain your attention at all costs. It does this by serving you a stream of targeted and curated content that appears to us as if it’s what everyone sees, as if it is the public square. Whether it’s that the election was stolen, or the vaccine will kill you, when it’s all you see, over time people start to believe it like there’s consensus around those ideas. Within our own personalised and curated public squares we’ve become susceptible to manipulation by Big Tech.
Your attention is maintained by data hungry algorithms that feed you content they know you’ll engage with, that aligns with your worldview, and that is sensational, outrageous and emotional. We’re human after all and the sensational is almost always more engaging than the truth. But the algorithms don’t care about truthfulness, balance or harm – only your attention.
Shoshana Zuboff calls this business model ‘surveillance capitalism’.
It is the process of scraping personal data and insights from just about every interaction you have online, or offline with your phone in your pocket. This is more than just our age, race and gender. They know where you have play time with your kids, the contents of your emails, how you spend your money, even what you typed into Google but deleted before hitting ‘search’. The scale of this data collection is unfathomable. 90% of all of the world’s data was created in the last two years.
The real intention of this model is to keep you online for two reasons, one to scrape more data from your interactions and two, to serve you targeted ads. This isn’t a passive system though. Its success hinges on more than just an ability to serve you relevant ads, the real value is its ability to nudge you toward taking specific actions. ‘Buy’, ‘accept’, ‘read more’. All actions dictated by Big Tech corporations and advertisers.
The ads you’re served are only worth the click you make then or the purchase you make later – all of which is tracked whether you went through the ad or not. If the system isn’t successfully nudging you toward those actions, manipulating your behaviour, it’s worthless. And with the global digital advertising market set to clear AUD $1.2 trillion dollars by 2025 there’s a lot riding on this model.
So what does this mean for truth and democracy in a digital age?
Joining a Facebook group didn’t make a protester pack their bags and go to Washington DC. It wasn’t just one meme that convinced them of electoral fraud. There is no single piece of misinformation that erodes faith in social institutions – it is all cumulative. And powered by anyone with a credit card who can now target you with ads based on your vices, vulnerabilities and biases, feeding into a market worth billions and controlled by a handful of tech companies. That’s what our democracy is up against. And there is no silver bullet.
To reclaim shared truth in this digital age we need to push for changes to the algorithm, oversight and accountability of digital ad markets, more digital and media literacy training, greater consumer data rights, and deplatforming egregious sources of misinformation. All of which are policies that require real political leadership that is up against aggressive lobbying and propaganda campaigns from the most powerful companies ever to exist.
But we’re also flanked by the resistance we all feel in admitting that our own truths are manipulated, that our beliefs and values are products of our environment, and that we’ve all believed something we read online that we shouldn’t have.
Even the critical-thinkers among us are susceptible to manipulation by social media. That mindless ‘scroll mode’ we’ve all found ourselves in late in the evenings is an attack on our psyche by a market that provides proxies for real social connection, littered with the content of advertisers, campaigners and malicious actors who either game the system or pay to reach you with their content. The sooner we can accept that we’re all susceptible, that there are forces at play whose business models are not at all concerned with our personal, social or democratic interests, the sooner we can begin to regulate Big Tech effectively and rebuild a shared public square.