Tech Columnist LANCE ULANOFF wrote an article on Barack Obama’s remarks on social media.
It’s time to burst social media bubbles before they swallow democracy whole.
IN HIS PRESIDENTIAL FAREWELL ADDRESS TUESDAY NIGHT…
In his presidential farewell address Tuesday night, Barack Obama—the first president of the social media era—offered one of the most succinct criticisms ever heard on a mass scale of our social media-obsessed culture, and its effect on democracy:
For too many of us, it’s become safer to retreat into our own bubbles, whether in our neighborhoods or on college campuses, or places of worship, or especially our social media feeds, surrounded by people who look like us and share the same political outlook and never challenge our assumptions.
THE PRESIDENT ADDED THAT THE ABILITY TO CHANNEL MEDIA FOR EVERY TASTE IS PLAYING RIGHT
The president added that the ability to channel media for every taste is playing right into the rise of partisanship. And without ever uttering the words “fake news,” Obama tied this isolationist social media bent to the steady rise of fake news.
…we become so secure in our bubbles that we start accepting only information, whether it’s true or not, that fits our opinions, instead of basing our opinions on the evidence that is out there.
What Obama said about neighborhoods, college campuses and places of worship is true. In fact, it’s always been true.
With the rise of the internet in the 21st century came the promise of a legitimate globalization, and an interconnected civilization. Someone in Egypt witnessing the Arab Spring could reach across the Atlantic to a young American student scrolling through a Twitter feed. Together, they shared a historical moment. And ideally, our differences would melt away, as those shared experiences cemented our common humanity.
At the start of Barack Obama’s second term, with Twitter and Facebook ascendant, and Snapchat and Instagram still relatively new developments, we marveled at social media’s ability to spread news, and even support revolutions. Citizen journalists and facts collected on and published from the ground were supplanting news collected, verified and, then, shared.
And for a little while, there was a collective sense that borders would fall, differences would fade, political parties would migrate to the middle, and we’d be one people, one world.
HOW OFTEN HAS HUMAN NATURE DRIVEN US TO OUR COMMONALITIES?
But how often has human nature driven us to our commonalities, as opposed to our differences?
After all, we notice differences and because they represent the unknown—different looks, places, opinions, and ideas. We gravitate toward the familiar.
When I was young, I moved from New York City to Colorado. Most of the grade school kids I encountered had never met a New Yorker, or anyone Jewish. They had strange ideas about them. And I didn’t fit any of those ideas.
And they had no cause to question those ideas until I came along, because everyone they knew agreed with them. It didn’t matter if books they could read or news they could consume on TV and in newspapers said otherwise. Their bubble knew what it knew.
So, the idea of bubbles? Not new. But we incorrectly assumed that the internet, social media and globalization in general might diminish those bubbles.
Instead, it’s made them worse.
Now, the quiet, private ideas historically hidden from view are shoved in our faces. Did you ever know your neighbors political affiliations eight years ago? All of them?
One minute they’re inviting you to play Candy Crush on Facebook, the next minute, they’re openly demanding all Muslims be registered or barred from entering the country.
Obviously, political parties and affiliation are at the core of our political process. We find likeminded people, and march arm-in-arm to the polls to vote. Yet each presidential election features a large group of undecided, potential voters for each side. They have their core beliefs, and their own ideas, but they can’t choose between candidates. And sometimes making that choice means shifting on a position—changing one’s mind.
Social media doesn’t support that process.
As Obama noted: “The splintering of our media into a channel for every taste…makes this great sorting seem natural, even inevitable.”
What it doesn’t do, though, is bring us together. Instead, we move further and further apart. How are we supposed to be a democracy fundamentally driven by our best interests, if we all remain locked into our social media channels, prisoners of our own ideas and echo chambers? How can we ever know better?
Democracy is at risk because social media’s weaponized the bubble. Practically simultaneously and at light speed, ideas form, algorithms reinforce them, and crowds coalesce around them. Worse yet, often inaccurate or harmful ideas don’t naturally dissipate. Instead, the permeable outer layer hardens into a shell, keeping the bubble and its core ideas and its fake facts intact, while repelling new, potentially valid information.
Combined with the fact that we’ve lost a good deal of what used to regularly burst these insular bubbles—face-to-face interaction—at least at a grassroots level and you have a fertile environment for these bubbles to metastasize.
When I moved to Colorado, I met people almost daily who professed shock that, as a Jewish person, I wasn’t wearing stripes, and didn’t have horns.
I assured them that stripes weren’t my style and would occasionally bend my noggin forward to show proof of my hornless head.
We had conversations (and fights) out there at the foot of the Rockies. I changed some hearts and minds. Not all of them.
Americans can’t know each other purely through the lens of social media.
There was that moment, in his speech, when Obama astutely recognized what’s increasingly missing from society: Those personal, face-to-face, sometimes mind-changing human interactions:
“If you’re tired of arguing with strangers on the internet, try talking with one of them in real life.”
I try to imagine what my young life would have been like in Colorado if there’d been social media. My guess is that the kids would have gathered on Facebook, Instagram or Snapchat and discussed my otherness and concluded that, though I did not outwardly appear to wear stripes or have horns, I was clearly hiding them, or using mind control to erase them from view.
It sounds insane. But then again, we know more and more what the toxic mix of misinformation and bubbles can do.
Americans can’t know each other purely through the lens of social media. There’s true information, real news, genuine advice, and meaningful friendship to be found there. And there’s at least as much meanness, trolling, confusion, and anger to be mined from it all, as well.
Anger’s easy to hold close and stoke in the shadows of social media. It’s only when we step outside into the fresh air and see our adversaries in the flesh that we remember they’re human, too. The question, then, is how we treat each other when faced with our shared humanity. It’s a far more real (and important) moral proposition than anything you’ll find on the internet.
Barack Obama’s words won’t burst the bubble, but as he leaves office, and Donald Trump moves in, it’s time to recognize that the clock is ticking on democracy. We have four years to get it right, or pay the price of what we don’t fix for a long, long time to come.