As a behavioral expert, I am interested in how social media impacts society. My last post explored dating apps and how they have the potential to negatively change the way men and women interact with each other.
I had no experience with dating apps and had to rely on other sources to understand how they worked. This effort led me to watch dozens of videos created by men and women describing their experiences with dating. The more videos I watched, the more similar content was provided. Soon, the majority of my feed centered around modern dating. When I watched female-created content, I was delivered more of that. When I watched male-created content, that was what was emphasized.
Female-created and male-created content dramatically differed in their messaging; both were negative toward the opposing gender. It was almost as if I watched a sports competition between two teams, each strategizing how to “win” the game. I thought a relationship was about working together to reach a goal.
A lot of the content created for women centered around what jerks men were or how to manipulate a man to get what was wanted. Much of the content for men focused on how evil women were and why one should give up on dating.
When I repeatedly watched a specific opinion, it made sense to me. In other words, it became my reality. This was especially true for the male-oriented content, which should be no surprise, as I’m a male. The same talking points were repeated continuously, so plausible ideas became actual truths in my mind. An opposing opinion was never given, so there was no counterbalance.
The content drove me to watch more videos in a process addiction fashion. This was especially true if the presenter told dramatic stories or had salacious content. What would break the pattern? Watching videos that presented the opposing viewpoint or just pausing my viewing and questioning what I had watched. Anytime you have a stream of information that purports their viewpoint is completely correct and the opposing viewpoint is absolutely wrong, it is time to pull back, pause, and think.
I have seen this phenomenon in many other areas. If you are an anti-vaxer, you will be fed content that confirms this belief. The same can be said if you believe that the earth is flat or that the theory of evolution is a lie. Mistruths become truths if the presenter sounds plausible and you are not given a balanced view.
Interested in a particular religious belief? You are fed content that supports that opinion. Interested in rejecting a particular religious belief? You are given a stream that supports that.
Some of the most egregious examples of selective content are the cable news channels, which bring high-production value, professional presenters, and skilled writers into the equation. It makes no difference to watch conservative Fox or liberal CNN; both are biased and designed to rile up the faithful with “us vs. them” rhetoric. These channels focus on politics, as this is low-hanging fruit. The other side is always “destroying America” in a never-ending stream of drum-beating crises. Viewers become zealots blinded by half-truths weaved by skillful storytellers.
Curated information may be useful when you have a neutral interest, such as cooking, gardening, or home repair. But it can be dangerous in areas that should be cut and dry, like medical information. The COVID pandemic was weaponized as a political tool using misinformation and curated information. However, other examples abound.
I have a mild case of eczema, and several years ago, I researched that topic by exploring websites and platforms like YouTube. I was able to find good data. However, most of the information was poor, and some was even dangerous. Outdated and false information was presented with the same veracity as established medical facts. Some presenters hawked dangerous diets or tried to sell their unverified cures to others. Websites pushing nonsense products abounded. All of this false information could lead someone to a worse outcome.
Free services are not free. Cable news networks, YouTube, TicTock, Facebook, and others have only one purpose: to make money for their shareholders. Likewise, many content creators make their livelihood by the number of subscribers that they have and the number of views their videos receive. It is known that people will view longer the more dramatic the content is. Content creators understand that a simple, biased message is more engaging than a complex, balanced presentation of the same issue. This creates a feedback loop where viewers watch content and become biased, forcing the creator to become even more biased to keep their viewers engaged.
These avenues are dumbing down America and, more importantly, creating an environment of clones, individuals with robust beliefs based on incorrect or incomplete information. Once a person goes down a particular rabbit hole, it becomes easy to drink the Koolade completely. A disenchanted teen becomes a white supremacist. A person negates known medical treatments in favor of options that shorten their life. A man or woman refuses a healthy risk to find a new relationship. A person believes they don’t need to address climate change. An individual views a person with an opposing political view as someone to be destroyed.
There was a time when a select few controlled the destiny of the masses. They determined what was fact, even if there was no credible basis for their opinion. Often, their views served their needs and benefited them by giving them wealth and power. If you didn’t believe in their talking points, you could become an outcast, consigned to prison, or threatened with eternal damnation. We called that time the Dark Ages. Hundreds of years ago, we moved past that blackness and entered the Renaissance, a period of significant social change and cultural, artistic, political, and economic rebirth.
As time advanced, so did our tools, and we moved into the Age of Enlightenment, where reason superseded superstition. We could test beliefs, proving some and disproving others. Enlightenment was followed by Romanticism, a countermovement that emphasized emotions over logic, and so it goes. As humans, we cycle in a forward and backward pattern. We are again entering another period where facts are rejected in favor of conspiracy theories, false beliefs, and biased opinions.
It is tempting to say that we should wait 50 years for the pendulum to swing in the other direction. After all, we have seen this pattern throughout our history. However, the luxury of time is no longer on our side. Our greatest strength as a species has been our ability to work together towards a common goal, and our greatest weakness has been to find differences between us that have led to conflicts and destruction.
We are now in the information age and should be reaping the benefits that such knowledge could afford us. Sadly, our ability to gain information has become a tool to spread poor information and false information, moving us toward conflict and destruction and away from cooperation and growth. I’m unsure if our society has another enlightenment in us before it is game over.