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Category: Government & Politics / Topics: Choices and Decision Making Dysfunctional, Broken Government Internet Media Politics Research Social Issues Social Unrest, Division Technology Values Voting & Elections

Driven Apart

by Stu Johnson

Posted: October 10, 2020

Where and how you get information matters…

Two things hit my radar this past week that spoke to the contentious election season in which we find ourselves in 2020.
Note: See the follow-up to this article in the October 16 post, "The Facebook Threat."

WE are normal, THEY are extreme—how we view the world

Last Sunday, Ted Koppel did a piece on CBS Sunday Morning about the sources of information people use leading up to an election. He was dismayed by how many (he focused on Trump supporters) did not rely on traditional sources of news—radio, TV (even Fox), newspapers—but other sources, especially social media. To me, this pointed out several things:

  • American history is filled with examples of extreme media partisanship; from personal, often vitriolic expression using broadsides and pamphlets (including our Founding Fathers, some using pseudonyms), to newspapers as essentially party and ideological organs. After some egregious examples of hate mongering in the early days of radio in the 1920's, the establishment of the Federal Communications Commission in the 1930s constrained radio and later television stations through pubic service requirements of their licenses. That began to change with cable television and deregulation of broadcasting in more recent decades. Now you can add all forms of web and social media options, some run by organizations, many more by individuals. The present is far different from the simpler ideal Koppel (and many of us with as long a history) recalls.

  • Koppel's dismay over what he regarded as a tradition of solid journalism by major broadcasters and newspapers ignores the trend in the last half century of a growing distrust by Americans of key institutions. Gallup has tracked confidence levels in 15 or 16 institutions since 1973. Overall confidence dropped 20% in that time, a full third if you compare the high of 48% for all institutions in 1975 to the low of 32% in 2014. There was a noticeable bump upward in 2020, likely due to the COVID-19 pandemic, led by strengthened confidence (perhaps with some degree of empathy) for Small Business and the Medical System.

    Newspapers ranked number 13 in 2020, falling from a high of 51% confidence in 1979 to 24% today. TV News has fallen from a high of 46% in 1993 to just 18% today, putting it at number 15. At the bottom, Congress, at number 16, fell from 42% in 1973 to 11% today. More on all of this in a future report on the Gallup survey on institutional confidence.

    With flagging confidence in major media, where do people turn for alternatives? Today the options are many and, unfortunately, contribute to division and hatred rather than moderation and civility.

  • Koppel's piece also pointed out an essential truth about our own perceptions. It seems obvious, but easy to ignore, that we are normal and they are not only different but in recent years have become more extreme and dangerous. An idealogical moderate may see liberals and conservatives on either side, and use such terminology. But move further toward either end and your view and terminology becomes more extreme, along with a heightened sense of fear—seeing all of them as fascists and neo-Nazis if you are to the left, or socialists and communists if you are to the right. And they are out to get us, to destroy our way of life.

    Expressions of hatred of the other side, rather than basic disagreement, have increased markedly since 2000. In fact, it is unfortunate that we tend to view all of this as a binary choice rather than a broad spectrum upon which we can find ourselves at different places on different issues. Yes, a small minority of the population is truly radical, but the media we all use can promote a perception of extremes that make us sense a much larger presence.

  • Can't we just get along? During the Vice Presidential debate last week, the last question came from a young girl who asked how young people should understand the contentious nature of politics.. As part of his response, Vice President Pence referred to the example provided by the late Supreme Court justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Antonin Scalia. While polar opposites ideologically and known for their passionate legal opinions, they were steadfast friends, often dining together with their spouses, going to the opera, traveling together. Divided by commitment to opposing legal philosophies, they retained common interests that drew them together in their humanity. Ginsburg wrote the forward to Scalia Speaks: Reflection on Law, Faith, and Life Well Lived, a compilation of speeches edited by Scalia's son Christopher.

    In his article this week, Greg Asimakoupoulos sets to rhyme Rotary International's "The Four-Way Test," which serves as a good reminder of how we should measure our own words.

Driving voters to extremes

Over the past year or so there has been an increasing focus on the role that technology giants like Amazon, Facebook, and Google play on a global scale. This includes scrutiny of concern for privacy, their predatory practices (buying out smaller companies to either secure or bury their apps), and their roles in the toxic divisiveness seen today.

The Real Mission: Driving Advertising Revenue

While Facebook and other platforms contribute to a great sense of community not possible through other technologies, it is important to recognize that being run on business models that rely on advertising (as opposed to subscription or non-profit models) their true clients are not the users but the advertisers. And the sophistication of the technology pushes that to levels of targeting not possible with print and broadcasting. A few examples, then the warning received this past week from Mozilla that relates to the election. I will use Facebook as an example, but all of the major social media platforms share these traits (and are owned by the biggest players, free from anti-trust action so far).

In order to increase exposure to advertising, it is important that the platform gains your attention and holds it for as long a period of time as possible. This leads to features and content that grab you (admittedly with pleasure on the part of many users because they are, in fact, useful and fun).

Driving the ability to target advertising is the network of users, capturing as much data as possible about you, your interests, and your purchasing habits. Combined with your network of friends, this creates a Filter Bubble, which makes your experience on the platform unique to you. What you post may be limited in access to your Friends, but not the eager grasp of the Facebook database.

That little Like button that seems so innocuous is actually a fairly simple way for Facebook to expand the extent and detail of its data on you and other users. Tagging people in pictures is another. AI (Artificial Intelligence) is increasing the ability to analyze, look for patterns of behavior and lifestyle choices, all to drive more advertising targeted with ever more precision. Predictive analysis can look at the steps a buyer takes to make a decision on a big purchase (let's say an expensive vehicle), then find other users in the network who may potentially be helped to followi a similar path through contacts, ads, content, and recommendations.

Driving the Wedge

The most insidious examples related to political and social division is in the area of news feeds and recommendations. Realizing that people spend more time when exposed to negative rather than positive viewpoints—which increases potential advertising revenue—Facebook and the other platforms use algorithms that tailor recommendations to each user, clustering people into opposing camps rather than bringing them together into community (which Mark Zuckerberg would have you believe).

For many years I used Google Chrome as my default browser because it did the best job of giving me a faithful presentation for website code development. After learning more about the troubling practices of Big Tech, I switched to Firefox, the browser offered by Mozilla, a non-profit group concerned about privacy issues and best practices for developing the Internet as a good place to be. (Gallup added Large Technology to its list of institutions this year, which put it at number 10 with 32% confidence.)

Following is a message that came this past week from Mozilla:

Facebook Groups pose a major threat in this election season.

They’ve become hidden breeding grounds for disinformation campaigns and organizing platforms for extremists. And Facebook’s own algorithmic recommendation engines actively grow these networks by promoting them to unsuspecting users – something the company has known since 2016.

With conspiracy theories, disinformation, and foreign influence running rampant in Facebook Groups, the company must turn off group recommendations until the U.S. election results are certified.

In recent days, the company acknowledged the role of Groups in spreading misinformation by discontinuing recommendations of health Groups to “prioritize connecting people with accurate health information.” While this is a good step, this isn’t a strategy - it’s a never-ending game of whack-a-mole with devastating consequences.

Facebook has known about this problem for years but ignored it, while extremism grew on the platform. In fact, the company began heavily promoting Groups for the last several years even though in 2016, researchers presented evidence to the company showing that 64% of all extremist group joins are due to [Facebook’s] recommendation tools…” in other words “[Facebook’s] recommendation systems grow the problem.”

Bad actors will use whichever Groups they can to plant disinformation, and algorithmic recommendations for Facebook users to join new Groups help grow a potential audience. With a critical election underway, Facebook must take this policy a step further and stop ALL group recommendations until election results are certified.


Read the Mozzila article, sign the petition and find other related resoruces.

Also see Dan Seagren's article today on Voting Problems , or search all of our articles on Voting & Elections for more analysis.

This article was also posted on Stu's InfoMatters blog.



Search all articles by Stu Johnson

Stu Johnson is principal of Stuart Johnson & Associates, a communications consultancy in Wheaton, Illinois. He is publisher and editor of SeniorLifestyle, writes the InfoMatters blog on his own website and contributes articles for SeniorLifestyle.

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Posted: October 10, 2020

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