Speakers’ Corner near Marble Arch in London’s Hyde Park is, as the name suggests, famed for allowing anyone to pontificate on any topic they wish. Thousands have used the corner since its inception in the mid-19th century. Some, like Marx and Lenin, had profound things to say.
Most just ranted, making it the digital equivalent of Reddit.
During this time, London had dozens of brilliantly edited newspapers and magazines with a complete spectrum of political views, yet some felt there was a need for uncurated, uncensored voices.
Skipping to the present, the Mueller/Rothstein indictments of the Russians makes clear the destructive power of social media. The promise of unfettered access to “the marketplace of ideas” has rapidly become a guarantee of trolling, subversion of the truth, election manipulation and an avalanche of info garbage, i.e., that the Florida students advocating gun control are paid actors. All this is brought to you by the largest, most profitable and innovative companies in the world — Google, YouTube, Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.
As an infrequent user of these companies, I vacillated between FOMO(fear of missing out) and skepticism. An early example came in 2005 when my friend’s 13-year- old-daughter was up in her room for hours sharing intimacies with total strangers on My Space.
I was curious but also dubious that any good could come from communicating with an anonymous anyone. Later, I learned she had a series of horrific interactions with sex predators who were gaming the system to meet underage females.
That did not stop me from opening social media accounts. Friends sent me numerous links to YouTube videos and wanted to friend me on Facebook. Yes, I posed for Instagram photos seven years ago.
However, I knew something was seriously wrong with all this social democracy when I started writing for on-line sites like the Huffington Post and The Times of Israel. After I spent a fair amount of time crafting thoughtful, informative articles on topics important to me, I would check the comments section.
What I often found was incoherent rubbish, short, vengeful responses that quickly devolved into insults and threats.
Using this cacophony to their advantage, camouflaged, organized subversives entered the fray. The Russian bot giant whom Mueller indicted, Internet Research Agency, could not have existed without the unfiltered public. Both post the outlandish, the fanciful and the extreme.
Witnessing the ubiquitous rise of banality has been depressing. No better place to observe this than a subway car. Over the course of 30 years, riders have gone from newspapers to paperback books to magazines to smart phones.
The rarest of all sights is someone reading something of importance. A glance over the shoulders of most smartphone users reveals they’re scrolling their Facebook feed to see the slicing of a cherry pie at Aunt Betty’s birthday or their neighbor’s vacation photos from Disneyland. If not, they are playing Candy Crush.
If they’re reading the news, it has been supplied by social media monopolists. Why 67 percent of users surrendered their news feed to Facebook, AOL, or Yahoo is beyond my comprehension. That’s like an arranged marriage of the intellect. Very primitive, prone to failure.
What I read and who I want information to come from is a near sacred right. I would no more let an algorithm set by Google tell me what information to consume than I would open my mouth and let a gigantic corporation, looking out for only itself, feed me. The millennial and under set who thought this was acceptable are now reaping a whirlwind of false and idiotic information. Troll commentary and foreign state-sponsored misinformation are aimed at subverting reality.
What started out as a sort of digital naiveté, the web equivalent of a hitchhiker’s trust in the driver who picks him up, has quickly devolved into a horror movie of fakery and fraud.
The focus of the social media giants has been the technical refinement of code meant to continue your engagement on their site at all costs. Even if that cost is factual fraud. Or as research shows, your happiness. While many Americans are succumbing to opioid addiction, it’s clear many more are succumbing to social media addiction, with disastrous results.
The truth is that sacrificing your mind to either monopolistic corporations or the unfiltered public is not a good idea. While it sounds retro, gate-keepers play an important role. They may not be perfect, but they are identifiable and accountable. You can understand their motivation and bias. When I click on one of the dozens of political sites I’ve bookmarked, I know exactly where they’re coming from. The Atlantic is not the National Review. The Times is not the Wall Street Journal. BuzzFeed is not The New York Post.
As anyone who ever owned a retail store or worked at a restaurant or airline can tell you, the public can be hell. Digital natives are discovering this truth. Ranting and raving in a park is not the same as a considered editorial policy and fact-based reporting.
Fortunately, the fix is easy. Pick the sources you trust. Go directly to their sites. Select diverse ones so you do not live in an echo chamber. Then turn off all social media news feeds. It is that simple.
Jonathan Russo, who writes the “Afloat” column for the Reporter, also contributes to The New York Observer, The Times of Israel and The Huffington Post.