“This is your last chance. After this, there is no turning back. You take the blue pill—the story ends, you wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe. You take the red pill—you stay in Wonderland, and I show you how deep the rabbit hole goes. Remember: all I'm offering is the truth. Nothing more.” --Morpheus
There is a pretty good chance you have arrived at this post via some form of social media. There is an even better chance that if you scroll up and down in the feed in which you found me, you will see other posts that catch your interest. The social media feed you are seeing right now is literally one of a kind. On a planet of 7.5+ billion people, there exists no one else in the world who is seeing exactly what you are right now. Your social media feed is purpose built for you, based on everything this social platform knows about you - e.g. your age, gender, relationship status, likes, dislikes, location, family, employer, groups, educational background, favorite sports teams, recent purchases, and more. The result is a personalized feed that reflects a combination of both what you want to see, and what the social platform has determined gets the best engagement from you to support its advertising model. It is in essence: your own curated homogeneous window into the world. Welcome to The Matrix.
A former colleague recently told me about an experiment he did after watching Netflix’s The Social Dilemma. He and a friend - both of different backgrounds, personal beliefs and political leanings - decided to compare their social media feeds. The social media feed of one friend told the story of a society in a pandemic, in which Covid-19 was a dangerous virus, and masks and social distancing were essential to safety. The other friend’s social media feed told a very different story: one of a great hoax, in which masks were not effective, the death rates were being exaggerated for profit, social distancing was not necessary, and politicians were using a pandemic to take away freedom from its citizens. These two views of the world cannot both be simultaneously true.
So what is it we can do today to prevent social media from controlling our mind? Here are my thoughts:
#1: Know Your Sources
Before the internet, news organizations all had a few common elements: (1) reporters to investigate stories, (2) editors to review the stories, and (3) journalistic standards (e.g. fact checking, minimum sources, retractions). Even with these three elements, pre-internet news organizations still made many mistakes, had inherent biases, and quite simply got things wrong. That said, they got more right than wrong.
Enter the world of cable TV and the internet. It is now fast and cheap to create “news” that is virtually indistinguishable from actual news organizations. It is so easy that many sites have “reporters” whose entire job is to take stories investigated by real news organizations, and retell these stories with a specific bias / point of view. In a world of “fake news” and “lame stream media”, it’s often hard to tell the difference between the two, and even harder to know what is a reported story from an opinion. The fastest and easiest way to qualify your sources is with a media bias site (e.g. MediaBiasFactCheck.com, FactCheck.org). While these sites are also imperfect, they do give you a reasonable sense of the quality of your sources. For example, here is a summary of Breitbart and CNN (hint: neither is a news source you will find me posting on Facebook). If you don’t want to put your trust in a bias site, you can often qualify the quality of your sources by asking these simple questions: (1) do they have investigative journalists on staff, (2) do they have editors and journalistic standards, (3) have they ever won awards for investigative journalism, and (4) do they print retraction when they get a story wrong? If you answer “no” to at least three of these questions, I can pretty much assure you that you are either looking at an opinion site masquerading as news or actual “fake news”.
#2: Know What Social Platforms Know About You
I’m not an internet privacy advocate, and will admit to having been a willing participant in trading some of my privacy for the free services that connect me to friends, colleagues and my communities. But I do this knowing the staggering amount of information the social media platforms know about me, and how technology can be used to make incredibly accurate predictions about my future behavior. The good news is many social media platforms will give you direct access to what they know. I would highly encourage everyone to take a look at least once - e.g. download all your Facebook data, see what Google knows about you. An increased awareness helps us all better understand why we see what we do in our feeds, and modulate our future behavior on these platforms.
#3: Think Before You Share
Every time you like or share on social media, two things are happening: (1) you are expressing to your connections, the social media platform and its advertisers your interest in what you saw, and (2) you are helping amplify this content for others to see. Whether you like it or not, your name will forever be associated with this content. So do us all a favor: think before you share.
#4: Add a Little Diversity In Your Feed
Did you ever wonder how in a world of 7.5B+ people, you and your social media feed trends toward sharing common beliefs on almost everything from Covid-19 to global warming to Donald Trump? Sure there are the occasional debates that break out, but more often than not, the majority of people on this social platform agree with you. This is of course not an accident. With every friend request, like and share, your social media feed is gradually becoming your own personal Matrix, surrounding you with people and views that affirm everything you believe. The solution? Add a little diversity in your feed. Engage in some groups outside your normal interests, add a few new credible news sources (e.g. international news), follow a few people you might not fully agree with, or simply choose not to unfriend that loud and noisy friend that always disagrees with you.
As much as many blame the presidency of Donald Trump for the spread of false information and the rise of “fake news”, the last few years may one day be remembered as the canary in the mine that warned us of the rising toxicity in our midst. You only need to look around at the large number of people questioning the integrity of the US election, the efficacy of wearing masks, and even believing in a cabal of Democrat-leaning lizard people promoting pedophilia, to realize the incredibly high cost of our personal echo chambers.
So what’s it going to be Neo: the red or the blue pill?