Saturday, April 20, 2019

Why Educators Need to Recognize Social Media's Structural Flaws and Algorithmic Radicalization Potential

Social media has become a problem. I was once an avid user of it, and now, after all the political events of the past two to three years, it has become apparent to me that Facebook and Twitter, among other social media products, have done more to divide and foster our uncivil society than anything else. It has effectively led to a polarized American society where it is perfectly acceptable to pass on false information and innuendo as the truth. In a word, Facebook and Twitter, are nothing more than online supermarket tabloids, and without veering into censorship, I am not entirely convinced that the media can be redeemed. 
In his book, New Dark Age: Technology and the End of the Future, James Bridle writes:
“If you’re searching for support for your views online, you will find it. And moreover, you will be fed a constant stream of validation: more and more information, of a more and more extreme and polarizing nature. This is how men’s rights activists graduate to white nationalism, and how disaffected Muslim youths fall towards violent jihadism. This is algorithmic radicalization, and it works in the service of extremists themselves, who know that polarization of society ultimately serves their aims.” (p. 212)
As Bridle makes clear, social media is designed to provide users with “a constant stream of validation,” and it does this by the algorithms that serve up what the platforms think users might be interested in. Social media isn’t designed to keep users informed: it is designed to gorge users on the same kinds of content those users usually consume, and it is there we need to acknowledge that this media is not harmless. Any Facebook user, for example, will notice that the social media tosses items into your timeline based on what you have liked and shared in the past. This means that the typical user trains the algorithm to serve up items that align with that user’s interests.
Our society has a social media problem. Set aside the addictive behaviors, dangerous threats and bullying for just moment; they are serious enough. Our real problem is that this media pretends to be a way to share news and information. It claims to provide a means for individuals and organizations to promote themselves. The truth is, I’ve come to a certain realization: I can no longer trust much that I read on Facebook of Twitter. I certainly should not give too much credence to it these days.
I say all this to point out that education leaders need to recognize that social media isn’t the hyped-up communications savior we once thought it was. It has serious flaws, one of which is its lack of a baloney-detection system. It also is an impossible place to carry on any kind of civil discussion or do anything except promote a divisitory narcissism that only makes us more divided.
As a school leader we need to educate our students and staffs about this side of social media. We need to be more retrospect and cautious about our own use and see it for what it is: an electronic tabloid that serves up individualized content to users. Social media is now a problem. It is always going to be a problem as it is currently structured. I certainly do not trust the likes of Mark Zuckerberg to fix these problems, after all, his goal is get more and more using the technology. To do that, Facebook structurally can only provide its customers what they want: self-validating content. As social media currently exists, it is an “algorithmic radicalization” technology that is incapble in its current form to be otherwise.

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