Words Arwa A. // Header Credits Alifiya Z.
For the uninitiated, “The Social Dilemma” is a documentary about the insidious effects of social networking sites. Engineers, venture capitalists, businessmen and various industry leaders speak about the behind-the-scenes of sites like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, among others. Everything is on the table – from the increase in youth suicide rates and surveillance capitalism to out-of-control algorithms and how the seemingly innocuous Facebook ‘like’ button was intended (and I’m not quoting) to spark joy. By and large, they present a doom and gloom scenario, and rightly so – in this war there are no winners. I’d say if there were an award for “Best Shock-factor Film of the Year” this documentary would have gotten it.
The documentary, ironically enough, felt like a Facebook NewsFeed to me; disjointed bits of news designed to shock and seduce with nary a link between them. The documentary flitted between how psychology, capitalism, politics, advertising, technology etc. are intertwined without going in depth on any one issue. In the end, I had a superficial, almost cursory, understanding of the social media landscape (which can be useful in its own right) but I was left wanting more. I understand that documentaries have to be succinct. I also recognise that this is a multi-faceted issue with diverse stakeholders and competing interests. To take on a topic of such gravitas is in itself an achievement, but it could easily have been a mini-series of its own. I’m getting ahead of myself; I’m not in charge of generating revenue for Netflix. I am, however, someone who likes to ask why.
So, if you’re anything like me or my university course mates (as you’ll see) you’ll be asking why we engage with social networking sites (SNS) in the first place. Just to be clear, we did not do it as a mere intellectual exercise. For one of our final year coursework assignments we were tasked to give a seminar on computer mediated communication. We were asked, and I quote from the rubrics, to “critically evaluate and integrate knowledge based on personally developed arguments”. James, Ryan and I took it just a tad too far.
We didn’t just want to “evaluate”.
We weren’t content to “integrate”.
So we set our sights on “create”.
The “Filtered-Funnel” model of news sharing is a by-product of our collaborative efforts. I say by-product because the product, the culmination, can never be a model. Indeed, as the British statistician George E. P. Box famously said, “all models are wrong. Some are useful”. On days when the weight of the imposter syndrome isn’t quite so crushing, I like to think this model helps explain a small facet of our interaction with social media.
What do I mean by “news-sharing” on social media? We’ve defined it as the practice of giving a select set of people access to news content that you’ve curated. Simply put, posting a news article on Facebook or tweeting it on Twitter. According to the Pew Research Centre (2017) 60-70 % of American adults get their news from social media sites. The practice is ubiquitous, but you know this on a personal level just by scrolling through your own Newsfeeds, don’t you?
I’ve established the “what”. Now for the “so what?”. Why should I or you or anyone care that news is being shared on social media? One of the most glaring implications of news-sharing behaviour can be seen in the political realm. Users on Facebook have managed to sway entire elections just by posting articles. It’s called the “echo chamber effect”, where people tend to see more of their political opinions and less of the others’ due to the nature of algorithms. But more of that later. The idea that one post, be it a drop in the ocean of content on Facebook, can determine the trajectory of entire nations is probably an Orwellian dystopia come to life.
Let me now explain our model. We envisage news-sharing to be both a process and a product. News, the product, holds no meaning if it’s not disseminated or shared (a process). We chose the funnel as a metaphor for the path an object takes, it is the conduit. Finally, filters act like checkpoints during this journey which determine which news makes it right till the end.
We begin with the ‘Ocean of News’. I think we all have an intuitive grasp on this. We live in the Information (overload) age. I read somewhere that a single edition of The New York Times contains more information than an average person consumed in his entire lifetime almost 100 years ago. So how do we cope with this avalanche of information at our disposal? Humans make use of processes that either reduce the amount of information or simplify it.
This brings us to the first filter, ‘Communication Network’. Basically, the algorithms I mentioned earlier form part of the filter. This is the behind-the-scenes that you don’t get to see. News coming through this filter was pre-selected for you based on your reading history or patterns of engagement. Algorithms are only half the picture. Personalisation and customisation is also included in this filter. You see it in targeted advertisements. You see this when you spiral into a YouTube vortex. “But I choose what I read/ watch,” you say but the control is an illusion. Recently, customisation has made this scenario somewhat less bleak. Don’t like your friend’s increasingly self-aggrandising Instagram posts? You can mute them for as long as you like (and yeah, I only found out last week). By and large, however, the content you see has already been chosen for you and this is what you see in your Newsfeed, “Filtered News”. Like filtered water, but perhaps not as uncontaminated.
Now, you’re scrolling through your Newsfeed and you click on an article? What made you do it? Personal preference, perhaps? You’re just more passionate about elephants than giraffes. You might have clicked based on how the news was presented. Maybe a few striking words jumped out at you or the accompanying picture was especially compelling (think: frolicking baby elephants). Perhaps the content – and I quote an Instagram comment, “made you feel some type of way”. Or the headline “Elephants Never Forget” stirred some deep-seated feelings of awe in you. If all that weren’t enough, I suppose seeing five friends of yours comment or share the elephant article made you curious enough to give it a shot. What I’ve just described – news preference, news presentation, emotional arousal and article metrics – form the 2nd filter, the attributes of the news article itself that entices you to read. After consuming the news, you’re on to the final checkpoint: what makes you share it?
To explain this, I draw on knowledge from the “Uses and Gratifications” Theory (Ruggiero, 2000) who argues that news-sharing (both a process and a product, remember?) fulfils certain needs and goals. For example, our desire to entertain or be entertained, evidenced by many BuzzFeed articles that dot my NewsFeed. It could also be our desire for status-seeking; you see that friend who fancies himself a cook routinely shares the crème of culinary exposition. The bottom-line is, if it fulfils a goal or a desire of yours, whether you know it or not, you are likely to share the news.
If you’re anything like our professor, you’re itching to provide “constructive feedback” on our model. But before you do, let me highlight some assumptions we made in conceptualising this model. Our biggest one is assuming that news sharing is merely clicking ‘share’ on a news item. In reality, many of us add our own voice to the news we share. So, what do we call such content? News++? Secondly, what is news? We assumed that news couldn’t be created by the users themselves, that it has to be from some third-party site like The Guardian. The fact is, nearly anything novel can be considered news. So if your friend is the first to discover that giraffes hate French Fries, that would be – no matter how inane – news. I now invite you to dissect our model and wonder why we did what we did. Because if the by-product was a model then the product was always the act of wondering why and digging deeper.
The work isn’t over. Our model barely scratches the surface of social media behaviour. ‘The Social Dilemma’ won’t teach you everything. In social media, like in life, information is plentiful, yet the truth is scarce. But maybe you don’t need the truth. Maybe you just need to want to find it. And maybe that is enough.