For many, the Fourth of July holiday is a well-earned break and a time to spend with family and watch fireworks. While that is definitely a great way to spend the day, you could also use this time to reflect on our country’s past, present and future.
I recently had the opportunity to read Cass Sunstein’s 2017 bestseller, #Republic: Divided Democracy in the Age of Social Media. Despite my initial reservation that I would not be interested in a book that discusses social media’s role in delivering news content, it offers a good examination and diagnosis of the current state of how information is received and processed. And don’t worry, it is not all doom and gloom. Sunstein also offers suggestions on how to make us better consumers of information and, in the end, more informed citizens.
The Dangers of Curated Social Media Feeds
The Harvard Law School professor argues that despite the promise of great quantities of information available at our fingertips, we are really only exposed to small fractions of information that are specific to our preferences. As the internet has grown more sophisticated through complicated algorithms, consumers are offered what he calls the “Daily Me,” or curated information specific to them. As our preferences grow more specific, so does our Daily Me feeds and we begin to be fed less diverse information that can even be false. This, according to Sunstein, is driving us to more political fragmentation and polarization, and in some examples, extremism.
Instead of hearing different viewpoints from across our diverse population, Sunstein states, “Many people now operate in virtual gated communities as a result of their culled Facebook and Twitter feeds and the opaque corporate algorithms that organize people into invisible groups.” While exposure to information you already agree with can be soothing to some people, it is not good for our democracy, argues Sunstein.
Over the last decade or so we have all become familiar with the idea of virtual echo chambers that can lead people to become entrenched in their beliefs and foster confirmation bias, to the point that people are more likely to believe things that they otherwise would know was not true. Echo chambers are no big deal if they involve a Facebook group about how great the Harry Potter books are, and they can even be helpful if they are based on something positive like healthy eating. But they can become troublesome when they involve political beliefs. As Sunstein states, “Self-insulation and personalization are solutions to some genuine problems, but they also spread falsehoods, and promote polarization and fragmentation.”
Echo chambers can lead to cybercascades in which information, whether true or false, spreads very quickly. Sunstein gives examples of echo chambers and cybercascades’ effects based on his government experience. He states that in closed-door meetings, politicians of different political parties often agree on an issue but cannot publicly do so because of fear that elements of their political base will quickly spread information, whether accurate or not, against them.
Why Hillard Heintze Investigators Escape the Echo Chamber
In our work, we see these social media habits among some of our subjects. Even executives of large businesses will post information online that is hyper-partisan and often simply false. It often makes me wonder how that executive begins to approach his or her work. Will he or she be open to different ideas that fall outside of what the executive already believes? Will he or she bring politics into the workplace? Will he or she base hiring and promotion practices on these beliefs? Others apparently wonder the same thing and we have seen clients become more interested in us researching these behaviors when looking into potential business partners or executives.
In our investigative work, we aim to ensure that our client sees more than just the Daily Me feed a subject curates for them. In many ways, the client needs to be exposed to the story we can provide, such as the subject’s litigation history, financial problems or simply false information like a self-reported employment or education history that does not match reality.
Expanding Your Thought with an “Architecture of Serendipity”
Sunstein believes that “chance encounters and shared experiences” are important for democratic societies and he calls for internet and social media companies to provide an “architecture of serendipity.” That is, to build into their algorithms ways for people to be exposed to material that they did not choose in advance, and in turn, a wider breadth of thought. Sort of like when you open an actual newspaper; you might not read every article, but you will at least be exposed to a range of ideas that were not hand-selected just for you.
I believe and hope that as the internet and social media sites become more sophisticated, so will the consumer. But it will take individuals making personal choices about how to educate themselves and ensuring they do not seek information that only validates their beliefs. This Fourth of July, I plan to make an effort to ensure I contribute to a stronger #republic and will read information that does not already confirm my beliefs. If Sunstein’s book seems like something you would not be interested in reading, as it did to me at first, maybe you should give it a shot, too.