There were days when people gathering at the village centre under the banyan shade used to gossip about everything right from exchanging sundry news to inter- and intra-religious conflicts to political bashing including slanders and whatnot. However, with the advent of digital technology, this has been transferred to digital platform. As a result, gossiping that was once carried out mostly among the known and trusted people is today extended beyond acquaintances to even strangers. Secondly, the gossiping that was oral and gone unrecorded earlier is now getting recorded and is traceable even after years of uttering.
Facebook and Twitter, having taken firm rooting in the fast spreading digital world, have, of course, revolutionized communication across communities and countries feeding information— albeit at times replete with unwholesome information—and even shaking the nations from their deep slumber. Indeed, the wave of mass protests that swept across the Middle East in the beginning of 2011 were considered to have been greatly aided by Information Communication Technologies. The “Arab Spring” was often referred to as “Twitter Revolution” or “Facebook Revolution”, for they were considered to have played a critical role in communicating people with each other, that too, instantaneously. It is of course, a different matter that there are considerable differences of opinion about the role of social media in the success of Arab Spring.’
That said, let us first take a look at the definitions of some of the important concepts emerged along with the growing digital media. First is the ‘social media’: it includes “groupware, online communities, peer-to-peer and media sharing technologies, and networked gaming. Instant messaging, blogging, microblogging, forums, email, virtual worlds, and social network sites are all genres of social media.” They have broad reach and are highly accessible, and facilitate not only rapid communication but also interactions and constant updating. And, interestingly, all this happens at an economical price, for the consumers of this media also act as its producers.
Next in line is the science of ‘opinions.’ Posting of information in the social media involves two stages: one, opinion formation, the first stage in which opinions are formed; and the second is opinion expression stage in which people share their opinions on the net. Opinions are subjective but they are also influenced by factors such as advertising, preconceived expectations and social influence. The Stanford Prisoner Experiment administered by Prof Philip G Zimbardo shows that social context can easily and importantly, dramatically change our behaviour. Which is why it is considered very easy to change our expression behaviour by the social expectations.
And that could be one reason why people do not share all the opinions that they form. Which means, in the opinion sharing stage, one evaluates an opinion formed, filters out those that cannot be shared and posts only those that one feels comfortable to share with others. This feature of opinion sharing obviously holds back many people from airing their opinions that go against the social context, or the apparent interest of the opinion seekers. There is another interesting phenomenon underlying the opinion expression: people whose opinions run on the lines of social expectations are found to be highly vocal vis-à-vis those whose opinions run against the context. This, at times, can lead to the danger of the vocal minority overshadowing the opinion of the silent majority.
Not surprisingly, what we usually see in the Facebook is what our friends share in it, which otherwise means, a reflection of our own prejudices. Over it, Facebook too plays its own trick: knowing our tastes, its algorithms show us more of what we like to see so as to keep our eyeballs glued to the site. In this regard, we must also note another interesting feature of the Facebook’s business model: it doesn’t matter much to Facebook whether what it is showing to us is accurate or not. It also acts as a vector for transmitting even political smears to the intended few. Of course, these problems are sometimes exaggerated. Incidentally, Facebook is not alone in this game. Even Twitter at times gets politically polarised. Same is the case with Google, which shows targeted ads. So, cumulatively, it is the accuracy that often gets a drubbing in the social media.
The significance of this indifference of social media for accuracy in what is being made available for viewing can be appreciated from what Jim Carrey tweeted: “that he is dumping his Facebook stock …because the social media giant profited from Russian interference in the US presidential elections via spreading false news with Russian origins…” Although Facebook has not responded to Carrey’s tweet, its founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg has said, “Stemming the flow of misinformation is among company’s foremost goals.”
A recent study carried out by MIT’s laboratory for Social Machines revealed that false stories travel faster and farther on Twitter than true stories. It seems false stories were retweeted by more people than the true ones. According to the researchers, false stories travel faster in social networks because they are more appealing, for they are more novel than the true stories. Secondly, false stories, according to researchers, are more likely to inspire emotions such as fear, disgust, surprise, while genuine stuff provoke anticipation, sadness, joy and trust. In short, they opine that people prefer to share stories that generate strong negative reactions. Similarly, fake political news is said to be more prone to go viral.
The ongoing commotion in the media about the role of Cambridge Analytica in the politics is a pointer in this direction? It is reported to have harvested the data of over 50 million Facebook users without permission. The ugliest part of it is: Using it for micro-targeting the voters with the aim of manipulating their opinion. And for businesses, it is of course, always lucrative to harvest and analyse the data of individuals to understand their socio-political inclinations/hobbies/tastes, etc., so that they can better sell their products. The Cambridge Analytica revelations about the ways in which data from social media is being harvested across the globe and used to even manipulate the political inclinations of citizens would only suggest that one should be careful about one’s activities in the social media.
Against this backdrop, if you look at the statistics of users—in America alone Facebook has 16.95 crore account holders; Instagram has 10.47 crore account holders and Snap Chat has 8.65 crore account holders—you get shuddered, for so many minds are getting hijacked by the digital media, that too by not so accurate information. According to Centre for Humane Technology (CHT) today we, sucked in by “like”, “share”, and “follow” have virtually “fallen under the spell of the digital universe and read and watch much more than we can digest, and provoke and outrage much more than we can handle” and all this unfortunately happening under the belief that “these actions are perfectly natural.” The CHT even warns that “Facebook segregates us into echo chambers, fragmenting our communities” while, Instagram, “glorifying the picture-perfect life, erodes our self-worth.”
That, however, does not mean that social media platforms are not beneficial in some respects. For, there are no entry barriers, you can be anonymous, and you can say anything and be yourself. But according to CHT what is required to gain these advantages from the digital platforms is: live the digital life more ‘intentionally’, else we may be, as Rebecca Solnit—a feminist who coined the term: ‘mansplaining’—said, “taken away from a sense of living in broader spaces, in deeper time.”