Sunday 25 February 2018

It's time to bin pithy online putdowns

“If you’re not p****d right now, what is f**king wrong with you? What is wrong with you?” shouted startup founder Dave McClure in front an audience of 7,000 people.
“If you’re not p****d right now, what is f**king wrong with you? What is wrong with you?” shouted startup founder Dave McClure in front an audience of 7,000 people.
Adrian Weckler

Adrian Weckler

If anyone wondered who Silicon Valley favours politically, a walk around last week's Web Summit in Lisbon left no doubt. As news filtered through of Donald Trump's victory win, tech executives reacted with raw emotion.

"If you're not p****d right now, what is f**king wrong with you? What is wrong with you?" shouted startup founder Dave McClure in front an audience of 7,000 people.

"Stand the f**k up! Stand up and make a goddamn difference," he screamed at the crowd.

In Silicon Valley only Peter Thiel, the controversial billionaire who recently sued Gawker.com into bankruptcy, publicly backed Trump.

So it may come as some irony that technology companies are now in the firing line for the role they are accused of playing in helping to elect Donald Trump by creating polarised online platforms.

The biggest culprits, it is charged, are social networks. Facebook's algorithms ensure that you mostly see things you're already in favour of. Meanwhile, Twitter has become a cloud of filter bubbles where people earn points (retweets and likes) by shouting clever insults at opponents.

Thus, web-fuelled confirmation bias was at an all-time high for this US election: a civilised, give-and-take atmosphere of debate became a distant memory on online platforms.

"I'm sad, I'm ashamed, I'm angry," said McClure at the Web Summit when asked about what technology platforms are doing right or wrong. "Technology has a role in that we provide communication platforms. And we're allowing s**t to happen, just like cable news networks and just like talk radio. It's a propaganda medium and if people aren't aware of the s**t that they're being told, if they're not understanding that people are trying to use them to get into f**king office, then yes, a**holes like Trump are gonna take office."

While algorithms and filter bubbles are tricky enough to overcome for one-world types, the spread of fake news sites is making it even harder.

An interesting investigation by Buzzfeed's Craig Silverman unearthed a thriving industry in Facebook-fuelled sites posting made-up news to gain clicks. The majority of the sites, Silverman found, were targeted at right-wing political supporters and had names such as USConservativeToday.com, DonaldTrumpNews.co and USADailyPolitics.com.

Facebook has systems in place to try and prevent the spread of what it calls "inaccurate information" and "misinformation", but these are not enough to stop the fake news sites, which earn their Eastern European creators tens of thousands of dollars a year in advertising.

Facebook and other online platforms are here to stay. By and large, they have already replaced traditional media formats as the primary distribution channel for news and opinion. And because they are now capturing more and more of the advertising income that pays for media survival, traditional outlets are starting to follow suit, ditching impartial reporting for advocacy and punditry, talking to whatever market will click, watch or buy the product put forward.

Is a backlash against online social media platforms justified?

Few want to go back to the days where a handful of self-appointed media "gatekeepers" decided what was news and what wasn't.

But social networks have undeniably created a different type of discourse, one where moderation goes unrewarded and point-scorers are increasingly elevated.

For all the good they do in giving a voice to those previously silenced, honest attempts at discussion are now frequently met with sneers, sarcasm or withering dismissal. Everything becomes personalised. Vain searches for "likes" or "retweets" compete with honest attempts to engage in a constructive discussion.

As a result, potentially influential actors who don't possess the talent of epigrams or pithy put-downs back away into their own circles.

This appears to be most evident for those who hold centre-right views. Other than emboldened "alt right" pundits, few now appear willing to hazard opinions online that stray from a particular liberal orthodoxy. As someone who mostly believes in that liberal orthodoxy, this is hugely regrettable. We're not listening to the other side. Instead, we're screaming and shouting opponents down, belittling and insulting them. Even when we stop the slagging for a few minutes, the best we sometimes muster is a sort of pitying tone: that our counterparts simply don't know any better (they aren't "educated") and have some sort of false consciousness about their situation.

"I understand why you say you feel that way," we gently say to them. "But you're just falling prey to these societal conditions on which I'm about to educate you."

It's patronising, condescending arrogance. And it has undoubtedly contributed to the election of Trump. Without that sense of superiority from our side, how many people might have been enticed into a calm discussion as to what the real problems are and how society together can move forward to fix them? (Remember: Trump's electoral margin was 2pc.) Social networks are absolutely here for the long term. Maybe it's time that we start valuing engagement with opponents on a par with signalling our virtue.

Sunday Indo Business

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