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Mon, Oct. 21

Cantlon: All of the harm the internet gets used for is our own fault

It’s our fault. The fact that Russian internet trolls were able to influence the election, the fact that those who spread political divisiveness can use stories that are made up or exaggerated and get them seen far and wide, the fact that violent groups can get their message across to so many more susceptible minds than in the past, all of that is because we use social media so much. We intend to use it for social purposes, but all of these rotten purposes piggyback on top of it.

If you only got your news from verifiable sources there would be no problem (another time I’ll write on how to get news accurately). If you didn’t use social media (I know, hard for some of you to even conceive of) or if it only amounted to family members sharing family news, or hobbyists’ Facebook pages to stay up on what are the newest health recipes, or twitter feeds of what celebrities are wearing, that would be fine. But it’s not limited to that is it?

Mixed in are the questionable Facebook news feeds and links to phony pages created by trolls, the unverified “news” tweets from your favorite politicians or activist groups, or political commentary from know-nothing celebrities, or Facebook “news” posts from your Uncle Harvey who is no good at separating which news is real. And if Uncle Harvey can’t reach you that way he’ll send out email chains. None of that would matter but most people get influenced by that stuff. They believe some of it, or, even if they’re doubtful, the continuous volume of it convinces them there must be at least some truth in it.

It would be manageable if people used critical thinking skills to parse the news, but what’s become clear is that almost no one does that. Witness the popularity of vaccine scare stories or, not long ago, the Obamacare death panels, as just two of the smaller slices of internet bunk that became more widely accepted than rationality could have imagined.

The Wall Street Journal reports that authoritarians are developing newer, much more sophisticated uses of social media to detect subversives, by things as innocuous as product preferences. And they’ll be able to target influence-shaping misinformation right down to the individual, feeding them “news” that plays on their unique fears or weaknesses. Why is it so useful for detection? Because so many put so much about themselves on social media, and reveal so much of themselves by their viewing patterns. Why is it so useful for influence? Because so many allow themselves to be influenced by it.

To some extent it’s our fault that violent extremists, both white-nationalists and those claiming Islam, get radicalized by the internet. They would favor their violent info sources anyway, but there’s much more of it because the social media channels have become so big because of our use.

The internet has great uses, but it also has become a monster of hatred, lies, divisiveness and foul influence. But saying it’s the internet is inaccurate. It’s the social media part of the internet. Who has made it into that monster? “Social media” has it in its name. Names give clues. You can’t have a “violent crowd” without a crowd, you can’t have an “invading army” without an army, and you can’t have massively influential social media without a huge portion of society participating.

When I say that we are the problem I’m being diplomatic. I use social media a handful of times a year. I don’t care what celebrities do, and I get news of family and friends from them. I consume an enormous amount of news, but not from Facebook suggestions or tweets.

Want to have a less violent, less divided world? One more focused on solutions? Get off of the damned “social” media.

Tom Cantlon is a local business owner and writer and can be reached at comments at tomcantlon.com.

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