The online bubble is making us dumber and meaner. It has become a sociopathic space curated by giant corporations, corruptive of clear thought and the capacity for human empathy.

I can’t quite remember when it happened. How we became so polarized, so contemptuous and ignorant of each other. The point when Facebook changed from a place that was really useful to stay in touch with friends from overseas or high school; to a place saturated with fake news and distant acquaintances starting flame wars. When Twitter stopped being a place where it was possible for a news junkie to get an aggregation of intelligent links to interesting topics; to a raging dumpster fire of political partisans and the permanently outraged.

(click PDF icon, upper right, if you prefer to read black-on-white) 

Tristan Harris, who once worked for the dark lords of Google, talks about the ‘attention’ economy (remember when those fuckers had a motto of ‘don’t be evil’. Ah, those were simpler times. Google had to drop the tagline in 2016. Because they’re evil: manipulating search results for their own economic advantage; buying out start-ups just to destroy them; stalking users in order to sell their information; massive tax avoidance; participating in US government surveillance programs, and all that). Harris states the obvious: there’s a surfeit of information on the internet, therefore your attention is a precious commodity.

In order to get your attention, they have to go low: short articles, simplistic and easy to digest, conforming to the reader’s world view. Social media shows you want you wish to see, using nuance-free arguments to reinforce your political and social views. The algorithms of Facebook and Google trawl over your likes and clicks and friends, and create for you a prize gift for the ego: a circle jerk of opinion, a tour down the rabbit hole of one’s tiny world view.

As Wired magazine argues: “The global village that was once the internet was has been replaced by digital islands of isolation that are drifting further apart each day. From your Facebook feed to your Google Search, as your experience online grows increasingly personalized, the internet’s islands keep getting more segregated and sound proofed.”

For example, in my feed I see lots of bullshit click-bait articles about progressives being more intelligent, or better looking, or possessing of bigger dongs than conservatives. I can only assume conservatives are delivered articles on how they’re smarter, better looking, or why their hands aren’t as small as everyone is saying.

Jim Carrey. Moron.

I can’t help but wonder: are anti-vaxxers fed a steady diet of articles that reinforce their views about the evils of vaccination? Do Wahhabi extremists have their prejudices stoked by pieces on the evils of the West and about Jews controlling international finance? Do the alt-right the get bombarded with opinion on the evils of feminism, or, again, the Jews?

Presumably the answer is yes, all round. And if I’m sick of the toxicity of my bubble, I can only imagine the five-star hate the saturates the kind of sub-cultures listed above.

My disgust with social media came to a head after the Pulse incident in Florida, when an extremist shot up a gay nightclub, killing forty-nine. Being a news junkie, and more importantly being a concerned human, I went to the hashtag on Twitter to try to find the first reports on what had happened.

Hashtags are a way of seeing different bubbles in action. At first, one side blamed white supremacists, the other Muslim extremists, each posting pictures of the ‘suspect’ to prove it, each side furiously re-tweeting the fake news.

When it came to light that it was a Wahhabi-inspired extremist with a high-powered semi-automatic weapon, the talking points changed. One side exclusively blamed Islam, the other exclusively guns.

That both were factors seemed to be involved was unsayable. A moment taken for calm reflection impossible. I could only think about these poor dead kids, not buried, not even yet identified, families frantic, as each side conscripted the victims into a political scoring match.

Repugnant. The bubble destroys empathy, on top of everything else.

It’s doing my fucking head in. So I’m trying out a few different things to get out.

The first is old school: reading a newspaper. As in physical copy.

One of the most striking elements of reading a local newspaper, after a hiatus of a few years, is the realisation of how alienated I’ve become from my own community. I know far more about the construction of the Dakota pipeline in the US than the construction of massive solar farms locally. I know way more about Donald Trump’s tweets than I do the proposed revisions to school funding via the Gonski package. I see friends talking at length about the ‘diversity’ of a particular US production, while never having seen Cleverman (and yes, US hegemony means most of the issues within each bubble are mediated through a prism coloured red, white, and blue).

Newspapers and their professionally-edited, curated content, allow for a diversity of opinion. Require a diversity of opinion, even, given they have to appeal to different bubbles.

A second, rather obvious, solution is disconnecting. I have, cutting down dramatically on my social media usage. Twitter once a week, Facebook no more than ten minutes a day. Shit, I had my wife change my twitter password and keep it from me. Like a problem drinker giving up the key to the liquor cabinet.

Click bait is addictive. Likes are addictive. Shit, plain old email is addictive. The brain patterns of habitual social media start to resemble those of drug addicts. Dopamine receptors activating each time the phone vibrates, each time you get a new Facebook like.

I have a pretty severe regime of mute, as well. Stupid opinions, political point scoring during a tragedy, miss an apostrophe – you get a mute. Life’s too short.

On Twitter, I’ve started following handful of intelligent, reasonable people with alternate political views. Shock horror; yeah, I know. Conservative Americans who are nevertheless anti-Trump, for example. Conservative Brits who are also atheists, as another. Get a flavour of other world views. Plus I stack up on reporters and academics from Southeast Asia and East Asia, people who as a rule tend not to fill the void in their lives with vitriol.

Freeing ourselves from these toxic, corporate-created virtual spaces matters, if we want to talk to others as human beings. Especially in a democracy. Otherwise the American political gridlock we’ve heard so much about over the past decade will spread to other free countries.

And while these polarized political bubbles are toxic in a democracy, I do wonder at the utility they have for dictatorships. Presumably this filtering technology is being manipulated by countries like China and Russia to mould opinion in their favour. A new weapon in their arsenal of censorship, gifted by Silicon Valley.

To elevate the political conversation, or simply to stay sane, that bubble has to be popped. So step outside.

Categories: Politics

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