In the fantastic Netflix series Black Mirror, there is an episode called Nosedive that perfectly chronicles how social media controls its participants, not the other way around.
The main character, Lacie, lives in a world eerily similar to ours, where people can use their smartphones to rate all of their social interactions from one to five, simply by pointing their phone at the person and scoring them.
Naturally, everyone wants to be as close to five as possible.
Lacie goes so far as to hire a consultant to help push her over 4.5, the Holy Grail that opens so many doors to popularity, career advancement and personal fulfillment. Lacie (and the viewers) learn a valuable lesson about freedom and free speech. The common two-worded put down she exchanges with the man at the end is joyful and blunt, delivered directly into the camera, meaning the viewer is being told off, too.
In more subtle, but no less controlling ways, this is what already happens on Facebook and Twitter, Snapchat and Instagram, where likes and loves and shares dictate popularity and influence.
The results are frightening, both for individuals and society.
There is only room for extremes in this world. It’s no coincidence that the two of the most popular Facebook groups in Prince George are Hell Yeah Prince George (where only sunshine and unicorns are allowed to live, but the administrators are allowed passive-aggressive cheap shots as long as they come with an LOL) and WTF Prince George (a clearing house for complaining and bullying, where only harsh criticism is seen as positive).
What the members of the two groups agree on is that the middle ground is despicable. Balanced criticism is portrayed as horribly negative on Hell Yeah and as weak and dishonest on WTF.
As in Lacie’s world, the pressure of conformity on these pages is enormous and dissent is not tolerated. Everyone must be happy on Hell Yeah and miserable on WTF.
There is no diversity of opinion or perspective and no questioning the prevailing group-think, the very definition of anti-social and intolerant.
Social media forges this invisible bubble of confirmation bias, shielding participants from anyone with any views that challenge their thoughts and beliefs.
Users create their own communities of like-minded individuals through the friends they choose, the individuals they follow and the groups they join. The social media companies then amplify those preferences, pushing users towards people and content they will like and steering them away from everything else.
In this way, Facebook and all the rest are no different than the TV and radio stations of old, broadcasting the content their audiences want to see and hear so users don’t turn the dial.
The difference, of course, is that social media is personalized for each user, through complex algorithms running behind the scenes, pushing content to the top of the news feed that keeps everyone happy and connected by showing only the world as each user wishes it to be, not as it is.
Social media outlets want users to believe users personally control their content through their personal settings, but it’s an illusion. These companies decide what each user sees and when they see it, just like the traditional media has always been accused of doing.
The difference is that the traditional media offer a diversity of views, hoping to attract as broad an audience as possible. Social media cares only for each user, isolating them from everyone and everything not like them.
Social media outlets then go further, amplifying this isolation to maximize advertising revenue.
On one hand, the prospect of consumers only seeing the ads that suit them and their lifestyles while giving advertisers the means of targeting their marketing to those most likely to be their customers sounds like a win-win for everybody.
Except that it creates social stratification, where the poor get only the ads for payday loans, credit cards, booze, cigarettes and fast food, while the rich are offered exclusive vacations, club memberships, luxury goods and organic food.
When this happens, the poor stay poor and the rich get richer, financially, socially, culturally and geographically isolated from each other.
There is no direct or indirect mingling, just a false sense of belonging. Both sides becomes increasingly convinced that they are where they deserve to be.
When the belief bubble is penetrated, intentionally or inadvertently, social media provokes hideous anti-social condemnation.
Few people would have the nerve to be so rude and cruel to another person to their face, but Facebook and Twitter courage provokes extreme reactions and virtually no accountability.
The outrage, like the unconditional positive rays of sunshine, is meant to be seen and agreed with, not discussed and debated. In other words, like me because I’m angry and you should be angry, too.
Biologically and psychologically, humans crave connection and community.
Social media, however, seems increasingly designed to distort those needs, upending them in favour of an artificial universe with each user at its centre, surrounding them with flattering mirrors and echo chambers where they can amuse themselves to death in their own private playpens.
— Managing editor Neil Godbout