The time we are living in has more similarities to the 16th century than to the 20th. That’s one of the points historian Niall Ferguson raises in his book The Square and the Tower, which focuses on social networks throughout history. In one chapter, he compares the impact of the printing press on 16th century society to the impact of the internet, and computers on 21st century society. Both radically changed the way humans could access information, and communicate with one another.
The most striking similarity is how badly we misjudged the effect these new technologies would have. In both cases, people expected them to generate a positive change by more efficiently spreading knowledge and facilitating global inter-connectivity.
In the 16th century, Martin Luther saw the printing press as a tool that would help eliminate corruption in the church. Back then, a corrupt clergy would sell certificates to Christian worshippers that would absolve them of their sins. This was only possible because The Bible was not widely available, and regular Christians had to rely on the clergy to interpret and convey the word of God to them. Luther understandably thought that once everyone could read the Bible for themselves, the jig would be up.
His book, Ninety-five Theses, called out corruption in the church and launched the Protestant Reformation, changing Christianity forever. If not for the printing press, he would have just been another heretic who was burned at the stake. Instead, his message went viral. However, this didn’t generate the outcome Luther expected. Instead, it instigated over a century of bloody religious conflict across Europe which eventually culminated in the Enlightenment, and state secularism.
Of course, other books besides Luther’s also went viral after the invention of the printing press. Many of these were full of malicious and deceptive content which deepened ideological divides or spread outright lies. Sound familiar?
In the 21st century, we’ve found that establishing an online network where everyone is connected and can communicate didn’t just produce a global community of meme sharers but also produced an unprecedented level of political polarisation, conflict, bullying and alarmingly different interpretations about the nature of reality.
Instead of establishing a greater level of understanding through engaging with diverse views, individuals across the political spectrum are forming bubbles where confirmation bias is rampant, and anyone who is identified as holding a differing view is vilified and abused. And as people in the 16th century discovered, it’s not just good things that go viral but also misinformation.
A famous example in the 16th century is witchcraft. The idea that witches were infiltrating our societies rapidly spread, creating a hysteria in Europe and America that led to hunts, and the burning of innocent people. From then right up to this day, we have had huge segments of the global population, many of whom are intelligent, sincerely believing in conspiracy theories, some of which lead to violence.
The issue is that we have a much bigger problem than people in the 16th century – the technology we use is far more powerful at exacerbating these negative effects. We have seen that fake news and extreme views can go viral across social media on a regular basis. Content is being created and shared at a rapid pace and much of it is very effective at reinforcing subjective realities about what’s going on in the world based on your group or political identity.
The way that social media platforms use advertising to monetise social networks has created a different kind of public sphere with different incentives. In a traditional public sphere, the incentive is to reach a consensus about truth. Sponsored posts and ads on Facebook, Google, Youtube and other social media platforms are incentivised to achieve a high level of user engagement.
These platforms are selling human attention to advertisers.
The problem with this is that engagement with content on social media doesn’t correlate well with truth. In fact, the opposite is true. We are attracted to novelty. Extreme views and misinformation is more novel, and therefore fundamentally incentivised under the business model of the social media platforms. The effects of this have been astounding. Political differences have always existed, but the extent to which the public can no longer agree on an objective reality is striking. While the mainstream media is clearly dishonest and increasingly prone to spinning stories along partisan lines, we’ve also seen an influx of blatantly false stories like “Pope Francis endorses Donald Trump for president” (I’d link to the story, but I’d hate to give them more clicks).
It’s no wonder that social media appears to correlate strongly with a sharp decline in quality journalism. As a public, we are being trained to crave something other than the truth when we consume information online. At the root of it is our inability to resist clickbaity or controversial sounding stories like “Wikileaks reveals Clinton sold weapons to ISIS” even if we suspect they’re not true.
The Trump campaign is the first major political movement to effectively leverage this effect on social media. It’s so powerful that it helped them overcome traditional barriers that face political outsiders – from a hostile mainstream media and political elite to fewer campaign donations and expenditure (Clinton outspent Trump 2:1).
The Guardian’s piece on Christopher Wylie and the Cambridge Analytica data scandal revealed that while many people are surprised that social media could be so effectively weaponised to spread certain information, others weren’t. Steve Bannon knew exactly what was going on. After all, he was the editor-in-chief of Breitbart at the time of the Trump campaign, a media outlet that thrives on the political polarisation in our online networks. Both Bannon and Wylie understood two important things: Firstly, the phenomenon of homophily – the strong tendency of individuals to associate and bond with others who are similar, even in small sized social networks. Secondly, that politics was like fashion.
According to Wylie, “politics is downstream from culture. To change politics, you need to change the culture. Fashion trends are a useful proxy for that. Trump is like a pair of Uggs, or Crocs, basically. So how do you get from people thinking ‘Ugh. Totally ugly’ to the moment when everyone is wearing them?” One of the tools that can bring this concept to life on social media is targeted advertising/sponsored posts. After the Cambridge Analytica scandal, the extent that data mining on social media can and has been used to influence people became pretty clear.
Have you ever had those creepy moments where advertising seems a little too targeted, and you start to wonder whether your devices are listening to you? I know I have, and so have many of my friends. Intelligent software interprets data from your social media profiles and online activity and uses it to map out who is hanging out with who, what kind of interests they share and takes a guess at what they would be talking about. It also shows them what their friends have been watching, reading and buying recently.
This form of advertising has a far greater impact than anyone in the industry will admit. Your brain now interprets the ads you see as a reflection of your identity. More than ever, you are giving over some power to companies in order to shape your self-image. For example, non-chronological timelines mean these companies can string together certain content with specific ads, to literally manufacture a train of thought. The Cambridge Analytica scandal showed an inkling of just how extensive these psychographic profiles are, and how effectively that data can be used to manipulate people into thinking about certain ideas or holding certain opinions.
It’s going to be pretty difficult to change the current model of content sharing on social media. I think cracking down on the algorithms is a good place to start. Users don’t like them, and they are constantly criticised but all the platforms side-step the issue with vague reassurances about wanting to “build more meaningful experiences.”
Aside from that, it’s a good idea to think about how these platforms work, and how they might be manipulating your sensibilities. Even some awareness about it can help mitigate the extent of it.
Follow the author Daniel Huigsloot on Twitter @danielhuigsloot