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September 21, 2020

“The Social Dilemma” & Foreign Interference: How to Not get Manipulated.

*Author’s note: “The Social Dilemma” has been trending on Netflix and political analysts are worried about other countries influencing the outcome of the elections. All fingers are pointing toward social media as the source of all evil. Let’s take a closer look.

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More and more, we are learning how algorithms determine what kind of information is presented to us on the internet.

Most of us are aware that there is a network of automated bots spreading certain narratives all over the web. 

A lot of the content is created to manipulate our perception into one or the other direction. Once we are in particular bubbles of reality, the algorithms push us deeper and deeper into them. 

Depending on our online behavior, we either get to see Trump’s newest twists on reality or enraged liberals trying to make their case. 

Social media was not designed to present well-balanced approaches to politics; it was meant to connect people who think alike and make money from advertisements.

Networks are supposed to bring people who share values and opinions together. They never claimed to be a source for political education or investigative journalism. 

What we call social media are various companies that created platforms for people to interact with each other. At the same time, these corporations try to make as much money as possible with advertisements. 

The more time we spend using these services, the more cash they make. 

The documentary “The Social Dilemma” explains the dynamics behind the business of social media that is based on stirring up controversies. Former employees of tech-companies admit that these platforms are designed to make us fight with each other in the comment sections. 

Have you ever checked your phone to see what that stupid person replied to your brilliant comment on Trump’s latest statements? 

That’s exactly where they get us. We want to know how the argument evolved, even if we are not part of it. Observing or taking part in controversial discussions entertains us and catches our attention on a daily base. It makes us spend more time on social media. 

With that in mind, it is not surprising that people around the world came up with the idea to use social media to influence politics. When it can change our shopping behavior with network marketing, it is also able to shape our political perspective, sometimes even both at the same time. 

When writing about United States politics, I was accused of meddling in the elections because I am German. Angry voices on Twitter came up accusing me of being a “foreign interference” in the elections. Technically, I can’t argue against that; my words might influence the vote of my readers. 

At the same time, I have to be realistic about the impact of my little articles on Elephant Journal—but it shows me how little it takes to spread my perspective all over the internet. Let’s imagine someone with a lot of money, know-how in programming bots, and the desire to manipulate the outcome of elections. 

If I had the money to pay for advertisements pushing my political articles and a network with thousands of bots sharing my content, I could reach millions of voters with my words. I don’t have that money, but there are foreign interest groups capable of doing all that. 

Most people agree that Russia played a huge role in the outcome of the 2016 elections. We don’t exactly know how they did it, but there are undeniable connections between the Trump campaign and Russian networks. The main accusation is that the internet was used to spread false information about Hillary Clinton, raising Trump’s chances to get elected. It worked out. 

It is 2020 and we are about to see the same trick being played. 

QAnon and other “truth-seeking” communities are pushing narratives in favor of the sitting president while portraying the Democrats as a bunch of pedophiles and child-traffickers worshipping satanism. Are they doing this to #savethechildren, or is it just a dirty trick set up by the Trump campaign? It’s too early to call, but history will let us know one day. 

Social media is shaping our opinions, and foreign interest groups are trying to shape social media, and on top of that, “The Social Dilemma” taught us that algorithms are apparently responsible for all of that. It could be all so easy. We are the victims of technology. 

I don’t buy this narrative and would like to offer a more mindful approach to this. 

Let’s say bots, tech-companies, and foreign super-villains are trying to manipulate us by dividing society into two parts. Let’s say they show us only the things we already believe in on our feeds. Let’s say they study our behavior to present the kind of content that will catch our attention. 

What would happen if we could shift gears and actively use the internet as a source of information instead of passively consuming what is presented to us? 

How about taking back the responsibility for our behavior? How about choosing what kind of media we consume instead of just clicking on every link we see on social media? How about searching for other perspectives instead of going down a rabbit hole of conspiracies or centrist ideas? How about checking sources? 

My main point is that we are responsible for what we do on the internet. If someone watches cat videos all day on YouTube, the algorithm will feed them with more cute animal videos and less political content. Once we start digging into the world of conspiracies, we will see more of that content. 

We are free to not only consume what social media thinks we might like. As human beings, we get to choose where to direct our attention. If social media is our only source of information, it will be easy to manipulate us, but if we engage in real-life politics or read the newspaper, we get to see other aspects of the online debate. 

If we see something controversial, we can start searching for other perspectives on the topic, instead of listening to five “experts” claiming the same thing with different words. 

“Go with the flow” is the worst advice we could give a social media user; the opposite would be more beneficial. Why not surprise the algorithm once in a while and look up something completely out of our social bubble? 

It is easy to blame social media for all the mess we are witnessing right now, and of course, it is undeniable that technology plays a huge role in this, but we can do something about it and not fall for every clickbait. 

It is tempting to watch someone share our opinion in more sophisticated words or get entertained by cute animals on Instagram, but we can do better than that. 

Nobody forces us to follow the suggestions of our social media feed. We can read a book, read the newspaper, or double-check claims made by questionable influencers on Facebook. 

Freedom of speech is essential for a democracy to work, but it also comes with the responsibility to choose who we listen to. 

People have always tried to manipulate public opinion with marketing campaigns—why would this be different in the age of the internet? 

We don’t listen to random people rambling about politics in a park—why do we do exactly that on YouTube? 

Let’s become more mindful about our media consumption and take back responsibility for our online behavior. 

We are not the victim of the almighty algorithm; we are the victim of our own choices. 

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