Every breath you take

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I have written a number of times before in this space of the concerns I have about social media platforms. Yes, it’s nice to be in touch with friends (real friends, that is, not the ones “suggested” by Facebook), and to post photos of important and funny events in your life. And, to be honest, it is probably too late to go back to a time before Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp, etc., even if we wanted to.

And that is one of my concerns. Even if we wanted to, these platforms have taken on a role in our lives that has become almost essential to so many people. It is now beyond a joke how people spend so much of their time looking at a screen and tapping away on a keyboard, even in company, during meals, meetings, and family events. In fact, events don’t seem to really be real unless one is taking a picture of it, rather than simply enjoying the moment, whether it’s a wedding, a picturesque scene, or the birth of a child.

We have also come to accept, however unconsciously, that Facebook, YouTube and others are more and more choosing what it is we see on our screens. Their algorithms “learn” from what we post, what we “like”, and what we search, and then present us with sites and posts it thinks we will like. The more we use these platforms, the more the algorithms can narrow down our choices, until we no longer explore and browse as freely as we think we are.

Again, that might be ok, if it weren’t for the fact that the algorithms are being manipulated with a very specific aim. No, this isn’t a conspiracy theory gone mad, this is why major corporations are boycotting Facebook right now, because they are tired of having their ads appear next to white supremacist posts, giving the impression that they sponsor such groups. And their complaints are being ignored by Mark Zuckerberg and his team. Look at this, from a recent article in the Guardian: it quotes an internal Facebook report in 2016 that found that “64% of all extremist group joins are due to the recommendation tools and that most of the activity came from Facebook’s ‘Groups You Should Join’ and ‘Discover’ algorithms.”

The article continues: “Yet, two short years later, in the 2018 presentation referenced above, managers told employees that ‘the company’s priorities were shifting away from societal good to individual value,’ meaning that Facebook would not regulate hostile posts as long as it ‘doesn’t violate the company’s rules’. Of course, the rules are often so vague as to even allow for someone as clumsy as Trump to weave right through them. And of course, all of this deliberate vagueness and all of these loopholes come right from the top. Zuckerberg sees white nationalism – and racism in general – as a political issue of right versus left, instead of a moral issue of right versus wrong”.

This is a serious issue, and would normally demand action of some kind. But what action? I would love to simply cancel my Facebook account, but a newspaper, apparently, needs to have such an account, as well as Twitter and whatever else. That is how ubiquitous social media has become. In fact, I tried to shut down my Facebook account, and found that I could no longer access the Times Facebook page. I tried changing my password, and ended up with a second account! My fault, no doubt, for not being tech savvy enough.

But, I must say, I’m really upset when, after booking a trip on ViaRail, or buying software on-line, I then, almost immediately, find ads for ViaRail and that very software, appearing on whatever website I visit. I don’t like it when I’m reading a British newspaper on-line, or browsing through some other site, and find that the weather information on the top of the page is showing Kemptville, or Perth, or Smith’s Falls. As soon as you go to a site, “they” know, not only what country you’re in, but what locality. To be clear, they know what computer, phone, or laptop you’re using too. This is not paranoia, this is life as we’ve come to know it.

The Internet was touted from the beginning as a way for regular people to share and discover without government or other intrusion. It was free to all to post and read and learn and share with the whole world, without being confined to edited or monitored content. Clearly, this dream has faded. But it’s not governments and editors that we have been subjected to now: it’s the faceless Facebook moderators, the YouTube algorithms, and whatever political and social determinants they use.

No, it is probably impossible to do away with social media in that way, and perhaps it is unnecessary too, if we can find a way to make it more transparent, more open, less subject to allowing others to determine what we see on-line. If only we had real freedom in choosing where to browse on-line, instead of having others decide so much for us. This is a real danger to our personal freedom. And people say wearing a face covering is a threat to their personal liberty!

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