Our Media Platforms: Part 1
This year, around the world, one of humanity’s great seers will be celebrated. September 14 will mark 700 years since the death of Dante Alighieri.
His epic three-part Divine Comedy is a remarkable union between the humility for how our past marks us, and the need to subvert those earlier transgressions that prevent people from anticipating a better future.
He was the classic pilgrim, just like so many, but unlike most, he was not consumed by the journey to the holy land. He wanted to know what made a place holy, and what its inhabitants had to become, to fulfill the promise of paradise.
In the “Before Times”, when mankind’s existence on the planet was “nasty, brutish and short”, Dante called life “a dark wood, a miasma”.
The great medievalist was also dazzled by the advances slowly being made in science, art, and literature, and his Divine Comedy recorded his elevated passage by visiting those souls in transition, from “hell to purgatory to paradise”.
There was a universality about this epic poem that offered comfort and guidance to millions from all faiths over the past seven centuries.
In today’s “After Times”, images shaping our world are even darker, and more obtrusive. Everything has sped up to uncontrollable speeds. Many now acquire much of their information through our social media networks, which makes it harder to distinguish between real and fake.
Media has always represented a conundrum. Individuals shape the content of society, and their interpretations, through all the lived experience accumulated, act as the filter for any information received. This is what Marshall McLuhan meant, when he said the “medium is the message” and added his explanation that the user is still the content.
But just as the modern Canadian philosopher predicted, remarkably, the nature of today’s online communication has created a world in which the “content” being shaped by users’ interpretations, based on their experiences, is now ‘programmed’ by a completely different environment.
An example: a newspaper reporter five decades ago, during the golden days of objective journalism, was forced to find the source of a controversy. Gumshoe work took enterprising scribes to the people who were the story. The reporter’s understanding of the dynamics surrounding the newsworthy matter were based on a combination of their own immediate experiences, and what they had learned from other sources, such as media outlets also reliant on the original sources who could tell their stories.
The elements of the information eventually consumed by readers were prioritized, in most cases, by interests close to the truth.
Today, when a “multi-platform” media professional puts together content on a news item, relying on Google to order and prioritize relevant information, it means an algorithm determines what will be seen and how high in the search ranking.
Google’s priority is creating advertising revenue, and this is how the computational mathematics that drive its primary function are designed.
A furious competition to create and find data, tailor it, repackage it and sell it back to us, has forced our society to surrender. Digital enterprises that control this environment, will continue to dictate how commercial interests will be used by them to shape society, just like the big oil companies did to shape generations of values based on a certain type of energy consumption. Everything from how we moved to the availability of products we purchased once we got there, helped foster a dependence on oil.
Today, in our information economy, social media also employs algorithms that ultimately reward use that can be most easily monetized.
These mostly unregulated digital-native media platforms – Facebook, Google, Instagram, YouTube, Twitter, et al. – burn themselves into our collective conscious, and put followers in silos of like-minded people based on their online behaviour. This puts a target on their heads and makes them subject to manipulation based on “persuasive technology”.
The authentic journalism that still attempts to find the sources of truth is lost in a matrix of algorithms that elevates the value of information not based on its veracity, but its potential to earn profits. These motives often coincide with blind political ambitions that tear apart nations, not unlike the oil industry’s ethos that Earth can burn later, because the CEOs, and all their political enablers, will be long gone.
In the media space, the dizzying speed of change, which has put traditional players that move at a glacial pace on their heels, the giveaway of the public imagination to digital-native information platforms has been sped up by legacy journalism outlets that continue to shoot themselves in the foot.
Trust is their greatest tool in this fight for survival. And they are failing miserably.
Last week provided the latest embarrassing example.
The national broadcaster, which has been devastated by a series of scandals over the last decade and has seen its relevance dwindle as fast as its ratings (CBC News Network’s total TV audience share across the country as of early last year was 1.4 percent) has once again been proven to be out of touch with many Canadians who fund the public agency.
After a man named Paul Hambleton used his apparently unilateral authority as the judge and jury for all matters related to the CBC’s application of its ‘journalism standards’ to declare the actions of a reporter in Winnipeg amounted to “activism”, the young journalist, who identifies as a Muslim, was forced to take down a tweet criticizing the racist comments of former CBC and Canadian hockey icon Don Cherry.
The reporter, Ahmar Khan, was later fired when a colleague, a man named Austin Grabish, took a company laptop that had been used by Khan and was still logged into his user profile. Grabish, who seemed to have something against his colleague, referred to him as a “pathological liar” to the woman who managed both of them, Melanie Verhaeghe.
He sent her screengrabs and other messages that he had searched for which highlighted Khan’s resentment toward management for forcing him to take down the Cherry tweet. Grabish also found and shared messages that indicated Khan had leaked the Twitter incident to another media outlet, Canadaland.
Evidence in the arbitration case showed Verhaeghe and Grabish colluded to target Khan, and Verhaeghe even proposed that she and Grabish should lie about the reason why she had to retrieve the laptop Khan had used.
It was a classic example of an institution closing ranks against an outsider despite obvious wrongdoing and bad judgement by insiders. It’s the type of behaviour seen in unregulated industries and organizations without progressive leadership and an ethical culture – exactly the sorts of institutions the media works to expose.
After the messages found on the laptop through a violation of his rights were dealt with, Khan was fired, ostensibly for trying to harm the CBC’s reputation.
But a Canadian Labour Arbitration ruling that was released last week found CBC not only wrongly terminated the young reporter’s employment, it had egregiously violated his privacy rights. Under the decision Khan can choose to either complete the rest of his contract or be paid out. (Given how tight-knit the white power structure of Canadian media is, his career prospects have been seriously limited.)
The case has been widely reported since the decision, and serious concerns about the CBC’s values have been raised.
How could the national broadcaster deem a visible minority reporter’s expression against a racist act, as activism, which Hambleton said he should step down for?
His narrow determination establishes that any expression by a CBC employee of an opinion that supports generally held Canadian societal values and reaches the public, is out of bounds.
Here is how ridiculous and out of touch the CBC position was: If the reporter had interviewed five people on the street and they had all said Cherry’s comments aimed at immigrants, claiming they don’t wear poppies around Remembrance Day, were racist, then Khan had tweeted about the story, repeating what all of them said, he would have been fine.
But the CBC, or at least one man who has worked with the organization for three decades, felt Khan was betraying his own bias, and if he “wants to be an activist he should step down”.
Even Cherry’s employer at the time, Sportsnet, expressed its agreement with Khan through its decision to fire the former sportscaster for his discriminatory remarks.
Does Hambleton conduct daily audits to ensure no content on the CBC’s platforms include journalistic bias? Are only visible minority journalists, who might identify with certain issues more strongly, scrutinized for potential signs of bias?
Do white reporters who cover a range of issues get vetted to ensure none of their biases enter into their work or social media use? For example, if any CBC employee ever speaks out on controversial environmental policies, such as the federal carbon tax, would such a tweet or public comment endorsing the policy be considered a show of activism, forcing the requirement to resign?
If the ridiculous standards imposed on Khan were to be applied using the letter of such a rule across the board, leaving no stone unturned, would the CBC be forced to fundamentally change its entire approach to journalism?
Maybe some employees are treated one way, while others, the loyal soldiers, just like Hambleton and Verhaeghe, get groomed for management. Funny how, in the Canadian media landscape, those rewarded for obediently promoting the party line, have one thing in common.
These are the same so-called leaders expected to think outside the box, to innovate and save the industry.
Grabish either lied last week when disputing the details of his conduct included in the publicly available arbitrator’s ruling or failed to convince the adjudication body that evidence it accepted was not true. Verhaeghe’s juvenile behaviour, colluding with one of her direct reports against another, detailed in the decision, raises questions about how she was ever given the responsibility to manage anyone.
Journalism is fundamentally about trust. Those featured in the news put their faith in organizations and their employees to tell stories honestly and accurately. The public has to know the information isn’t filtered or manipulated by journalists who shouldn’t be trusted.
The behaviour of Grabish and Verhaeghe destroys this relationship and the CBC’s utter disregard for this public trust contributes to the crisis facing the entire industry.
The alarming institutional disregard for how the manager and reporter were not only given a free pass for blatantly violating Khan’s privacy rights but were also fully supported for doing so by company brass last week, is further evidence that the country’s largest media entity is doomed.
The CBC is not alone in its complicity in the fake news movement, while more and more members of the public raise legitimate concern over whether legacy outlets can be trusted to represent their interests.
The Toronto Star was similarly disgraced when former columnist Desmond Cole was told by leadership to stop advocating for various Black causes, including the end of police carding and the damaging retention of race-based data by the Toronto force. He immediately quit in 2017 and the Star used the same justification as the CBC, to backup its laughable effort to stop Cole from doing what white journalists at the paper had done for decades.
Both outlets include regular reporting and opinion writing on issues around racism and institutionalized discrimination. Meanwhile, more groups and individuals directly impacted by the cutting reality of bigotry question legacy media institutions that harbour the same systemic attitudes.
Their ability to survive the battle for the hearts and minds of Canadians, while social media asserts its growing dominance, is greatly undermined by routine behaviour that disconnects the traditional media from the public.
Dante’s quest to understand how we as individuals create our own ideal future, seems lost on Canada’s traditional media leaders.
If traditional media organizations pay little more than lip service to broader Canadian values, while newsrooms operate in their increasingly irrelevant bubbles, more committed to protecting the status quo than competing to win back lost users, we might as well just accept the role Facebook and Twitter will continue to take over.
These platforms are driven by the profit-producing algorithms, the Darth Vader of the internet. They are designed to perform specific, and in many cases, insidious tasks, sucking the unsuspecting into the maw of the internet.
This, say some critics, is the real plague of our modern age – worse than anything COVID-19 can muster up now or in the future.
An exchange between U.S. Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (AOC) and Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg highlighted the disposition of the insatiable social media giant.
In October of 2019, during a House Financial Services Committee hearing, she questioned the multi-billionaire about his knowledge of Cambridge Analytica, the now shuttered British consulting firm that was paid by third parties to use Facebook to manipulate democratic elections around the world, including the 2016 U.S. presidential election.
The company claimed it had developed psychographic profiles of 220-million U.S. citizens.
When AOC asked the Facebook head when he had found out about Cambridge Analytica, he said he was “not sure the exact time” but it was probably when the scandal around the company became public, but despite the use of Facebook to conduct its political interference Zuckerberg only found out about this roughly when the public did.
She then asked him when the issue was discussed with a particular member of the Facebook board, which is supposed to provide governance and direction for the social media platform.
“I don’t know,” he replied.
“You don’t know,” AOC calmly repeated. “This was the largest data scandal, with respect to your company, that had catastrophic impacts on the 2016 election – you don’t know?”
She then switched to the issue of political advertising. She wanted to understand how Facebook received payment to feature information known to be false.
“You announced recently that the official policy of Facebook now allows politicians to pay to spread disinformation in 2020 elections and in the future.”
She provided him an example of a lie that could be used against Republican politicians during the 2020 election campaign, claiming in a Facebook ad that a candidate had supported a particularly aggressive environmental proposal known as the Green New Deal, and asked if she could advertise this false statement on Facebook.
“I don’t know the answer to that off the top of my head,” Zuckerberg replied. "I think, probably.”
Mark Zuckerberg has displayed little interest in taking responsibility for what Facebook features and how it treats its users.
“Do you see a potential problem here?”
It’s clear he doesn’t.
The storming of the U.S. Capitol, the proliferation of racism, the rise of misogyny and fall of democracy – the naïve tech wizards standing behind all this might be great with code, but someone like Zuckerberg lacks what Dante hoped for, a curiosity to understand how only we can create paradise.
Zuckerberg never really knew what he was creating. He made it up as users showed him what they wanted and commercial opportunities to manipulate them shaped his platform.
Recent attempts at accountability by some social media platforms including Facebook, suddenly fearing legislative action to finally regulate the industry, seem obviously calculated.
Since January 5, when the Democrats through a Senate run-off in Georgia, took control of the upper chamber, meaning the party now holds both legislative branches and the executive branch of the U.S. government and can pretty much enact and execute laws however it wants, Facebook and Twitter suddenly started taking some responsibility.
After four years of astronomical growth, largely thanks to Donald Trump’s assistance in further popularizing their platforms, despite his daily unchecked racism and sexism and authoritarianism that proliferated on their creations – the launching pads for his endless lies and dangerous attacks – Twitter and Facebook decided to finally shut him down.
Was it a coincidence that the move coincided with the Democratic control of the White House, the House of Representatives and, finally, the Senate, meaning new regulations on the industry might finally be imposed, which would treat social media platforms as publishers, with all the attendant legal responsibilities?
Incoming President Joe Biden has hinted that he might review the U.S. Communications Decency Act of 1996, the controversial legislation that allowed the evolution of the digital world we have today.
It states: “No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider.”
Section 230 of the Act provides legal shelter for internet service providers, social media platforms and search engines to function as aggregators and intermediaries of content but they are not liable for that content if action is taken to remove or deny access to problematic material.
If Zuckerberg had been interested in the democratic values that are supposed to underpin journalism, he would have understood long ago what he was doing to destroy the trust.
Instead, he preyed on our most vulnerable.
Winning Youth Back
There is no vaccine to cure for what ails our addictive embrace of social media, which is designed exactly for this purpose.
This is truer when it comes to our most impressionable, those middle schoolers whose minds are not yet fully formed but drawn to social media like moths to light.
How youth become big consumers of all this mostly unmediated content, has become one of the great worries of our age.
It will impact them now, and into adulthood, and is a subject that will play forward for decades.
The ethics that were supposed to moderate all this social media usage are now centred at Stanford University in California, home to the Persuasive Technology Lab. The players there are mega-businesses driven by the profit motive, and their growth during the past generation is one of the great business success stories.
But at what cost to society?
The Pointer ran a story last year responding to the 2019 Ontario Student Drug Use and Health Survey. It showed frequent over-use of social media sites was associated with poor psychological results among children and adolescents. This study has been issued bi-annually since 1977, and in recent years, investigated how over-use of social media led to psychological distress and even suicidal thoughts. More than 11,000 students from Grade 7 through 12 took part in the 2019 study, and among concerning trends was a growing number of students – particularly girls – talking about symptoms of depression and anxiety. In total, 20 percent of them said they have spent five or more hours on social media a day – almost double the findings from 2013.
In general, drug use declined, but social media interest spiked as an addiction, and results were a particular concern to the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH).
The report stated that 39 percent of students indicated serious or moderate psychological trauma (anxiety and depression) and 14 percent had thoughts about suicide. The correlation between more social media usage and mental health issues in teens (and even pre-teens) is a modern-day tale, and a newer study reinforced what was already known.
According to a January 2020 study in the Canadian Journal of Psychiatry, researchers observed more than 3,000 Grade 7 to Grade 10 students in the greater Montreal area over a four-year period. Results were a carbon copy of the Ontario study.
Researchers measured the time students spent with social media, television and computers. The conclusion: the more time kids spent engrossed in digital screens, the more severe their symptoms of anxiety and dread.
Not all forms of screen use yielded the same result, said Patricia Conrod, one of the study’s researchers. When watching TV, kids often consume idealized lives that are different from their own experiences. But social media is unique because adolescents are seeing pictures, videos and status updates from their own network of friends and peers.
Most adults recall a different childhood, when they developed what Conrod called, a “more balanced perspective on what everyday life is like.” The difference between today and yesteryear is less digital access as kids.
Today’s teens average seven hours per day on social media, while tweens check in at five hours.
These are the outcomes Facebook and others create, and it is why they are now among the largest companies in the world.
In 2018, about half of American teenagers admitted to the Pew Research Center they spent too much time on their cellphones. Conrod said interacting through social media meant more exposure to a reality that is biased. This clicking and scrolling and then seeing the lives of others filtered through their phones, could influence how they critically examine information – or how they feel about themselves.
It’s the narrative McLuhan predicted, and feared.
"Once we have surrendered our senses and nervous systems to the private manipulation of those who would try to benefit by taking a lease on our eyes and ears and nerves, we don't really have any rights left," he warned.
He feared the commercial takeover of information exchange would reduce most communication to what marketers and other corporate interests, along with political parties forced us to consume.
His prediction now unfolds as traditional sources of information and news move blindly toward their own end, while the draw of social media, driven by those who bid highest for its space, shapes everything from how future generations dress and eat, to how they will vote.
The use of multiple screens only multiplies the inability to decipher information. The risk, of course, is that serial users develop a somewhat biased perspective of the world, Conrod said.
Data is being collected at rates never before possible.
The practice of using positive intermittent reinforcement in media development to keep users' attention for longer periods of time, is not much different than a drug dealer supplying a junkie with a daily fix. The commonality is addiction, and the psychological practice of serving up social media is similar to how slot machines suck you into the vortex while visiting Las Vegas.
But there is one significant difference. The fallout of traditional addictions is relatively contained to the subject and their immediate circle – family and friends.
Social media addiction has broad societal implications. These are Orwellian themes, the stuff of science fiction. We are watching the realization of warnings from decades ago.
While many lose faith in the media sources followed by their parents and grandparents, people are highly likely to believe false information on the internet, such as conspiracy theories and misinformation, affecting off-screen behaviour and lives.
The danger is that false information on Twitter spreads six times faster than true information, according to a Massachusetts Institute of Technology study, which means people have a greater emotional reaction when they are fed fake news.
All of this is the subject of the Netflix docudrama, The Social Dilemma, a film which made its debut last January at the Sundance Film Festival.
It interviews a brainy bunch of geek-freaks from the inner sanctum of Silicon Valley, and Hollywood actors play-out different scenarios showing how pernicious the reach of our social media world is in our everyday lives. This has created a web of deceit, where the line between truth and fiction is blurred. Like the spider that sits on the edge of its web and awaits the entrapment of its victims, the other web also ensnares those who aren’t paying close attention.
Some of the young men (yes, the Silicon Valley alumni are mostly men) so often credited with creating or re-making these social networks, are now sending out dire warnings to parents and institutions, and the negative impact of social media is one of the great dangers of our generation.
The Social Dilemma is one of the great mea culpas of our time, a baring of the soul from a virtual collective of who’s who types trying to escape the grip Silicon Valley once had on them.
As one critic noted, social media follows few rules and is virtually unregulated, and the lure of free content is just too juicy for most users to pass up. This content proves addictive because it isn’t curated, and eating up this info is like designing the present and future users desperately want to inhabit. They aren’t aware of the architects of their desires, the strings of code that form the algorithms pushing and pulling them in a million directions, all of which serve one interest or another, but not the users themselves.
Jill Lepore’s new book, If Then: How the Simulmatics Corporation Invented the Future, says humanity has yet to establish effective rules and standards to safeguard the ownership, collection and marketing of social media information for personal use.
The silo-ing of users into groups that are easily manipulated is the main worry of the former builders of these sprawling sites who offer their testimonials in the Netflix film, and this is creating mind-melding behaviours. Too much input leads to ungovernable outputs. “The machine may not be the monster, but it brings out the monsters in us,” says a Silicon Valley pioneer, Jaron Lanier. “Truthfulness is of no interest to algorithms.”
Lanier says Facebook’s goal is to get everyone addicted to Facebook. But it also sells its manipulation services to companies with different goals. The goal is data mining people and selling their behaviour for scads of money, now in the multi-billions.
When writer James Gleick looked at Lepore’s latest for the New York Review of Books, he honed in on comments from Lanier, who said: “If you’re reading on a device, your reading behaviours will be correlated with those of multitudes of other people. If someone has a reading pattern similar to yours and bought something after it was pitched in a particular way, then the odds become higher that you will get the same pitch.”
Multiply this by millions of people and social media has the power to influence broad behaviour patterns, while multiplying profits.
How many of us have looked at an ad for a product in a magazine with our cellphone, and the next day received a Facebook ad on the same subject? The next level, though, is when you mention a dream trip to a friend on a post, then get inundated by ads for the same destination on every one of your feeds.
Psychographic data drills even deeper, using predictive targeting based on profiles created by everything from your words to your online behaviour.
And don’t forget geo-locating, where your every move is used to market products and services back to you. Usually, you won’t even know your data is being monetized, it’s simply gathered and sold for a range of uses that are applied to broader applications, like the time of day advertisers should target consumers based on internet usage patterns.
The deepening impact of these platforms is especially alarming if it finds younger people caught in its web. This is the potential horror captured by The Social Dilemma.
It should be must-watching for parents, or mental health practitioners or school boards that have to work with these unwitting victims living half in and half out of this social media matrix.
Lanier, a virtual reality pioneer, wrote a 2018 cautionary book called, Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now and concludes that young people have to exit social media. His 10-ways should be a gospel preached in all homes and schools.
He is one of many colourful characters interviewed for The Social Dilemma.
The algorithm is turned into a character, personalized and played by an actor in the film, and the other evil attachment is Artificial Intelligence (AI). This new form of mind control is Orwell’s dark vision taken to the nth degree. The film synthesizes what we know about the new orthodoxy, and how it tricks us into thinking we are in control of our handheld devices, when the opposite is true.
Lanier is the pioneer in virtual reality (a term he invented) and his geek bona fides include his nickname of “octopus”, drawn from his job as an interdisciplinary scientist at Microsoft. He is also a founder and principal of start-ups later acquired by Google, Adobe, Oracle and Pfizer.
From creator to fierce critic, he now calls our social media networks, especially Facebook, a mass behaviour modification machine. He says the power of social media – like the bolts of electricity that powered the Frankenstein monster – creates a feedback loop, driven by algorithms. This monster chooses what information it wants us to see, takes hold of a user’s “likes” of a particular shiny object, and trains the algorithm to search for more likes so it can perform better and faster for the user in a constant feedback loop.
This is all done with stealth and the users, like the flies drawn to a web, are the unwitting occupants who inspire this trap.
Facebook sells this manipulation of its users to others who have different goals.
The darkest examples are companies like Cambridge Analytica, which helped Donald Trump win his run for president in 2016. With the help of Russian bots, it flooded the social media zone and targeted those who felt alienated, hated Hillary Clinton, or liked the fact the boorish GOP braggart was an outlier, a former reality TV star, a so-called anti-government every-man.
This is proof of how easily social media can be used to brainwash people. Those Trump did the most harm to, while he conned his way to the Oval Office and propped up his corporate interests between his constant rounds of golf, still believe he was the every-man working hard for them.
Social networks data mined for like-minded people by interpreting their online behaviour and continually sending them pitches which embedded them in the Trump camp.
They were also connected to each other, perhaps the biggest draw to a social network like Facebook, and the addictive quality it invests in the most. The same people who feel sold out by the fake news media they can no longer trust, have deep fealty for social media platforms that have created their new sense of community.
Such loyalty can also compel them to shop for a new house or buy a car in a very social media-directed way. This is what Facebook is all about, no longer a university tool to bring like-minded people on campuses together, it now serves as a platform for social engineering, and the payoff is unimaginable.
Data mining is much easier if can collect a composite drawing of its user early on in life, and this is what alarmed the ex-Silicon Valley crowd and led to The Social Dilemma.
It’s all a far cry from Dante’s epic journey to learn from our past, and prepare ourselves so we can enter a better place.
Part 2: Is the promise of the internet and social media as tools for the greater good still attainable? Or are they now simply the technologies of ‘surveillance capitalism’ run amok?
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