Posts Tagged ‘social media’

Dangerous Times

February 11, 2022

Warning: politics ahead

I do have the feeling that we are all living in very dangerous times.

I lived through the Cold War; I have a very vague childhood memory of my parents looking terribly worried one evening after they’d listened to the seven o’clock news on the wireless as I got ready for bed: this was the Cuban missile crisis. I demonstrated several times against Thatcher and Reagan’s cruise missiles in the early 1980s, and supported the Greenham Women’s march on one occasion. I remember being concerned as a school student in the early seventies, when news about how we were polluting and wrecking the environment first hit the headlines. But I don’t think I’ve ever felt quite so alarmed, and for so long, as I am at the moment.

There was – still is – the menace to American democracy and the world that is Trump, and his toddler imitation this side of the Atlantic, our very own PM. And France seems to have vomited up an imitation ready for its presidential election this year. We take democracy for granted at our peril; once we have lost it, it’s only regained at enormous cost. Ask Germans, ask most East Europeans.

There is China, to an extent understandably flexing its muscles after years of humiliation by the West, Russia behaving no differently from the imperialist ways it has espoused for several centuries, and the West unable to think outside its self-righteous, US and NATO-inspired box. What happens if China and Russia decide to work together, I don’t know. Meanwhile, the idiots who own Britain have decided to cut us off from our nearest neighbours, doing enormous and very evident damage to the country and its people.

There is the menace to our planet, to the survival of our own species, brought about by our own actions, our own greed, our own wilful blindness. Most of the indications I read suggest that we are pretty much too late now to be able to do anything about it. We are taught and manipulated to want endless new and shiny stuff, to burn up natural resources that heat the world up, causing disasters that are regularly reported on the news, but… The planet would survive after a fashion without us, yet I can’t help feeling that would be a bit of a shame…

And there is the role and the irresponsibility of social media in all this: profit is its first motive and driving force, and turning people against each other, fostering division and conflict, certainly generates far more ‘engagement’ and thus far more money than any kind of peaceful co-operation. Facebook, Google, Apple, Microsoft and Amazon have a hell of a lot to answer for, but first we have to make them…

What is to be done? To be honest, I don’t know, and I’m even more worried when sometimes I find myself thinking, I’m too old to care, let someone else sort it out. That’s, let younger people sort it out, and yet my generation let all this happen, on our watch. Yes, many were deluded, many were uninterested. And many have been part of the problem.

Things only look set to get worse: there are two years left before an election in this country, long enough for enough people to have forgotten the chaos of the last five years and been bribed to vote for more torment; although there are two more years before an election in the US, it’s clear things may seriously worsen after the midterm elections this autumn. And as for the poor old planet: are we actually doing anything to remedy the emergency. How much does my bamboo toothbrush help? My vegetarianism? My not flying? What do we elect governments for?

And this is my final point: there are now forces at work convincing people that democracy does not work, that there is no point voting because the same people always get in… so other choices, other measures are required. If people give up on politics, then there is no hope. Then I look at the electoral systems in the UK and the US, and I do give up…

More thoughts on social media

March 23, 2021

I’ve been doing some more thinking about the problems with social media, given the attention it gets nowadays. First of all, I think we need to be aware of several distinctions:

There’s using social media for personal/friend/family contact: WhatsApp messaging, Facebook and the like; we are communicating with people we know (pretty) well. This is different from reacting to posts from strangers/ casual acquaintances/ friends of friends that also pop up in such things as our Facebook feeds: how well do we know that person and their attitudes? Does this/ should this matter? And think about how the platform shapes your communication: Twitter limits what how much can say, Facebook algorithms choose which of your ‘friends’ will see a post, Instagram heightens the competitive in you…

What about the audience: is it private (WhatsApp and the like) or more generally public (Facebook, Twitter &c)? Does this make a difference?

What device are we using? Because we all know about fat fingers, it being harder perhaps to type accurately on the tiny keyboard on a phone, and so we may tend to write shorter, curter, less subtle messages or responses. I know I may be showing my age here! But it’s different writing something with the relative comfort of a table with a laptop and fully-sized keyboard, imho… So, an e-mail or a blog post like this one is an open-ended communication, not limited by the platform or the device, only by my reader’s attention-span (tl;dr?)…very different, as I can try to explain and nuance my ideas and opinions when I’m allowing myself five or six hundred words.

And this ought to be linked to things like the limit on the number of characters on a platform like Twitter: how subtle can you be? This should matter.

There are broader issues, such as the fact that mobile phones are not often used for talking: they’re mini pocket computers, offering all sorts of comms possibilities. But think about the difference between a conversation and a text exchange: you don’t hear your correspondent’s voice, its tone, the pauses, the noises they make as part of their reaction to what you’ve said; you don’t pick up cues from them. The entire interaction is shaped and developed differently. And don’t imagine that emoticons help: it’s like letting someone else make all those non-verbal communications for you.

There’s also one’s attitude to responding: psychologically the ‘ping’ announcing the arrival of a message primes us to make an instant – unconsidered? – response. Why does this have to be the case? I’ve lost count of the number of times some one has told me of a message and said, ‘I don’t know what to say!’ and I’ve found myself replying, ‘There’s no law that says you have to reply instantly!’ An instant response with no thinking time may be too angry, too emotional, too simplistic a response, and damage is done instantly; it will necessarily be brief because you’re typing on a phone… When someone’s there with you, or you’re talking to them on the phone, if you put your foot in it you can often verbally backtrack and correct things: in a text exchange, someone can go off in a huff and ignore your messages…

And, of course, phones have always replaced physical social interaction, where you can actually see the other person and pick up all sorts of visual cues and messages from body language.

At some level, none of the above is rocket science, if you think a little about it; the problem is that the media do not allow that sort of reflectiveness easily, and it seems to me that this is how misunderstandings from throwaway comments, whether to total strangers or someone we know well, arise and do damage. And no, I don’t have any wise advice to offer, other than ‘Switch brain on!’

There’s also the question of fake news, false information, propaganda or whatever you want to call it; messages sent out en masse by organisations. Perhaps this was not anticipated in the early days of social media, but once it became apparent that enormous amounts of money could be generated from all kinds of advertising, it was surely inevitable. The structure of social media encourages brief, simplistic messages, whether advertising or political propaganda, and because these messages are jumbled in with more personal stuff, our critical faculties are disarmed or at least less attentive, in that we are more likely to view and judge them with the less critical eye that we use with more friendly messages. And anyway, how are we able to check or to verify? How do we know – how can we find out – who is behind that unexpected post or message that appears among more innocent material? And the more we try to lockdown our privacy or shut out unsolicited material, the more it impacts on the communications we actually want to have.

Final, broader and perhaps more cynical question/ reflection: did the builders of all these social media platforms know the full implications of what they let loose? Did they care? Or was/is it all about money?

One thing is for sure: we need to think seriously about how social media is changing us, our opinions, and how we relate to the rest of the world…

Social media = social division?

November 21, 2020

I’ve been on facebook for a decade or so; I use it to keep in touch with distant friends, former colleagues and former students, and to share this blog with some of you… I find it increasingly frustrating to use, and the algorithms that seem to only allow me to see posts from a small proportion of friends are incomprehensible. I’d love an alternative. I have a Twitter account that I don’t use, and an Instagram account that I use occasionally, usually when on holiday. It also drives me nuts when it fills up with adverts and suggestions of whom I might follow… I keep all these accounts as locked down as possible, to block advertising and tracking.

So, I find social media useful. I am also increasingly horrified by its power and its insidious effect on us all, because it’s a commercial product which has the primary purpose of making vast amounts of money for apparently unscrupulous people.

I have the impression that for many – younger – people it’s their gateway to, or source of, news and “commentary” on the news. So everything is smitten into tiny gobbets that will fit on a phone screen, lacking depth, detail and subtlety when it’s not actually incorrect, or deliberately false. This is not good in a society that would like to be thought of as democratic. And then there is the deliberate use of social media to propagandise, to influence and shape opinion, often by very unscrupulous, hidden and anonymous forces: algorithms hunt out the vulnerable and susceptible and set to work. Social media is divisive.

Social media has the power to be very divisive, and to polarise us, into fiercely opposed groups. Again, it’s the brevity and lack of subtlety when it’s so easy to make a throwaway, dismissive, simplistic or aggressive comment on an article or a post, and anonymously too. It can be the equivalent of a brick through a window, something which many people would not do, but a quick snarky comment on social media… no real harm in that, surely?

Social media also seems to separate us from others, in the sense that it isolates us in our own particular bubble of like-minded readers and thinkers, and gives us an inflated sense of our own importance. We are friends with people like us, and tend to make similar comments and have similar reactions to events; opposing viewpoints do not often impinge on our own little echo-chamber.

When I was teaching – former students may recall this – I took great delight in allowing wide-ranging discussion of a wealth of subjects, and often used to play devil’s advocate in order to widen the discussion and introduce different viewpoints. Social media cannot do things like that.

Where is the real danger in all of this? It’s the creation of divisions where there were none before, or the amplification and simplification of divisions and conflicting viewpoints, the fostering of anger rather than discussion, dialogue, argument – all of which are healthy! And look for the motives. I started by pointing at the money, and the moguls of social media are phenomenally rich, far richer than any one individual has the need or the right to be. But look also at the power dynamic: keep people divided into their own particular little interest groups and they won’t see what they have in common, which may well be that the system conspires to keep them separate so that they won’t challenge the existing order and rebel against it, thereby threatening those in power and their money. The Romans knew how to do this two millennia ago “divide et impera” – divide and rule – and it still works today…

What can be done? Clearly so many of us enjoy social media, and would be loth to give it up. We need a different model, perhaps, a non-commercial one. I’d pay a modest monthly sum for a neutral, non-profit oriented facebook or instagram equivalent, one which didn’t allow manipulation or advertising and didn’t try to replace our news media. Or maybe someone out there has a better idea?

Not the news

February 13, 2020

The_Times_04_09_39_460    I know I’m not the only person who’s concerned about what’s tritely labelled ‘fake news’. I’ve tried to think through what is actually going on, from the perspective of someone who’s kept himself well-informed over a lifetime.

My interaction with news dates from my earliest years. We took the Daily Mail at home, and listened to the news on the BBC Home Service. That was what was available all those years ago. My earliest memories are of my parents’ anxious faces as they listened to the news of the Cuban missile crisis, their shock at President Kennedy’s assassination, which came in a newsflash just as we children were being sent off to bed, and the news of the death of Pope John XXIII.

I was fascinated by other newspapers and regularly took myself off to the reading room of Stamford Public Library to leaf through the Times and the Daily Telegraph, and take in The Christian Science Monitor (which arrived there daily) and India News. At boarding school we read the Times and the Guardian, and the latter soon became my lifelong newspaper of choice. And when we finally got a television at home, we watched the news.

The thing was, in those days you couldn’t really avoid the news. Most households took a daily paper, often two on Sundays: we took the Sunday Pictorial (which eventually became the Sunday Mirror) and the News of the World, until our mother vetoed it because of its salaciousness. If you paid money for a newspaper, you read it, or much of it, and were consequently reasonably informed. If you listened to the wireless (I love that word!) you got the news whenever it came along. And there were regular news bulletins on the TV, too.

Now, think through what has changed. There are so many TV and radio channels where there are no news bulletins. There are enough TV and radio channels for enough people to avoid the news completely, and if you consume your music through apps like Spotify, there’s no news, just like there’s none on Netflix and other streaming TV channels.

The internet has massacred the printed newspaper: papers like the Mirror, Sun, Daily Express that used to sell four or five million copies a day now sell a tenth of that number. People do not read newspapers, by and large. News has migrated to the internet, and most people’s expectations are that it will be free. I do not pay £2.20 a day for a printed newspaper any more, and haven’t done for years. Some newspapers have paywalls; I don’t bother. So even though I have a wealth of free news available to me, somehow I am less informed, because I don’t read everything in that day’s Guardian – I don’t even know the totality of what’s in it. I skim, superficially, like a wasp – because it’s free, it has less value, less significance. Interestingly, the printed news and analysis I pay 5.40€ per month for in Le Monde Diplomatique, I still read from cover-to-cover.

News has become more trivial, more personality focused. Is this perhaps the result of the changes I’ve outlined above? I think the two phenomena are linked. I’ll listen to radio news in the car while I’m driving, for as long as I can bear it, but I don’t bother with television news any more.

So, I consider myself pretty well-informed, and yet I’m clear that I graze the news. I’ll also admit this is partly an age thing: I’ve seen a lot of it before, and I know that my opinions and actions aren’t really going to make any difference in what’s left of my lifetime. What about the millions who avoid the news almost entirely?

Newspapers have no obligation to be objective, and so news and commentary or opinion pieces have long been jumbled together. The terrestrial TV stations in the UK are by law obliged to be politically balanced or impartial. Social media can do what it likes, and we know where that has taken us: anyone can post anything they like, pretty much, truth or lies, and nobody can do much about it. For all their hand-wringing pieties, the US giants of social media don’t really have a clue what goes on on their platforms, nor do they care as long as the bucks continue to pour in.

Somewhere it seems to me that all of this ought to matter deeply, to concern all of us if participating in a democracy means anything to us. And yet, apart from a relatively small number, it really doesn’t. And there are plenty of people, organisations and companies who will do very well indeed as democracy dies. It’s not that I think that as a society we used to be well-informed, just that now I feel we are much less informed, and also much more susceptible to ignorance and disinformation. And that cannot end well. Nor do I have a realistic solution to offer.

On the quality of attention

January 30, 2019

This follows on from my recent post on the quality of information, in a way: my simple premise is that in the past, when there was less – in terms of quantity – information generally available, what there was received rather more of our attention, whereas nowadays it washes over us, and we take in far less.

Let me give personal examples. Back in the olden times, we bought The Guardian newspaper every day, and read it from cover to cover, pretty much. A single source of news well-scoured. Now I have the internet, and look at the stories in The Guardian that grab my attention. But, because of the way web pages are constructed, I have no real way of knowing what I’ve missed, and never come across. I’ll glance at the BBC news and The Independent too, and check the New York Times and perhaps Le Monde too. I’m casting my net a lot wider, but often grazing rather than reading carefully: has my attention-span changed? Much more to read, much less depth to what I’m reading? Not only that, but the way articles are presented, how they’re written and who writes them has also changed; everything seems less detailed, briefer, more ephemeral: designed to grab my attention briefly… then what?

One printed periodical still finds its way into the house: I’ve subscribed to Le Monde Diplomatique for some twenty years or so, not because I’m a closet diplomat (though my teaching job used to draw quite heavily on what I used to call my Kissinger skills) but because as a publication offering thorough and detailed information, and serious analysis of and commentary on world affairs, I have yet to find its equal. Is it because of my age that I read it so carefully and thoroughly and treasure it as a source of my understanding of the state of the world?

I’ve come across references to academic studies that suggest that our attention to what we read and take in is changing because of the internet, that the human brain may well be being ‘rewired’ in ways that we don’t yet completely understand. Such changes, if they are taking place, will inevitably have a greater effect on those younger than me, it seems. Already I am aware of an attitude in people younger than myself, that it’s less important to know – as in the sense of retain in the memory – information, because it can so easily be accessed on a device that one always has to hand. That’s as may be; certainly my brain is cluttered up with things like phone numbers and addresses from twenty, thirty, fifty years ago that are of no use at all, but if not committing information to memory becomes the norm, what does that say about us, our brains, our futures?

The act of writing as a physical skill and as a need is dying out, too. Phones, keyboards and predictive text are ensuring this. Students complain about having to write essays in exams; they now find it hard and haven’t the stamina.

There has always been the ephemeral – mental pabulum – cheap and trashy magazines, newspapers and TV, but it does seem that there is so much more of it in the world of social media, which appears to suck up many hours of many people’s attention. I know that I may just be an ageing and increasingly out-of-touch dead colonel type for noticing and commenting on this; I do know that times change and one cannot swim against the tide. What I do think, though, is that more of us ought to be reflecting on what is going on, what is changing, and loudly asking what it all means…

On perspectives (1)

July 5, 2017

The recent election, and the way I followed and observed it, as well as participated, has got me thinking about the question of perspectives, ways of seeing many different aspects of our world. For the first time I was very clearly aware of the bubble from which I was seeing the election: as a left-leaning voter, I got my news from left-ish sources – The Guardian newspaper, and the Independent, and occasionally checked into the Daily Telegraph, as I’ve done for years, to see how the enemy was thinking. And then there was the social media: almost everyone I knew was commenting and discussing from the same left-wing perspective and I had no idea what the enemy were up to unless a friend commented on a Conservative blogpost or suchlike… Rude awakenings came from the occasional leaflet pushed through the letterbox… and I found myself thinking, I have been compartmentalised and also compartmentalised myself. What is going on, what are people thinking out there in the real world?

I wondered how many left-leaning retired teachers there might be, who are also religious-tending agnostic, with a European perspective on everything because they are only half-English? I must be in a very small sub-group. And then I thought, does any of this matter? It seems to me it does when one slips into thinking that my world is the world. At one level, I’m sure that the notions above are common-sense, blindingly obvious when you think about them: the issue really is how often do we think seriously about them, and where do we get when we do?

One of the things I think has changed has been the way we have moved into a fully global era in my own lifetime. I don’t just mean global capitalism, although that is a big part of it, along with the increasing irrelevance of nation states and powerlessness of national governments, but the fact that it’s possible for the human race to annihilate itself through nuclear warfare, which is a relatively recently-acquired ability, as well as the way that we are increasingly trashing the entire planet and most of us are still ignoring the fact that we are doing it.

I’ve found it interesting that these global times have begun to produce attempts at global history, and attempts to look at the entire picture of human society and culture across time and across the world; what I see emerging is also a growing awareness of just how complex and interconnected everything is: if it’s so complicated that no single individual can grasp it all, then what hope do we actually have of being able to address the problems that face us as a species. And yet, in a way because of this globalisation, it has become easier for us to be segmented into smaller and smaller subgroups according to all sorts of interests and preferences; this reminds me of the ancient Roman adage divide et impera – divide and rule – there are plenty of reasons why it’s good to keep us divided according to our differences, rather than allow us to unite according to what we share with others…

to be continued…

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