No shades of gray. How social media drives us to the extremes.

| Comment

Originally pusblished on Aug 26, 2016 on Medium

Chances are you either hate Clinton or Trump. You probably can’t understand how can anyone justify supporting “the other side”. Every day you see a new fact or news update that confirms how logical your decision is and how crazy the other side is. Well, you might be right, but you are probably also being played nonetheless.

I felt the same, I could not understand how so many people are so blind with so much mounting evidence. But I also had this skeptical tinkering attitude to try this experiment: I went to Facebook and “liked” and clicked every single page or article of opposing view I could find. For me, and to keep it simple, it meant basically lots of pro-Trump. The more opposed I would feel, the better. Thankfully Facebook, on its hunger to know you better, suggests related pages every time you like or click one. Not 10 minutes later my “About” page looked like this…

Look at the suggestions. Step 1 accomplished. Also essentially an “image suicide” for most of my social network that see me going rogue. Sorry friends, this is for Science!

My hypothesis is that social media is polarizing our attitudes extremely invisibly and effectively. What Facebook really wants is for you to click on every story it puts in front of you. That’s where they get their money. And it’s really good at learning about you and adapting to your reactions.

Almost immediately my newsfeed changed completely. I started to see updates from friends I had not seen updates for long, suggested pages, events and news article were incredibly different. I still got the news from some of my usual friends but I also got — specially on mobile — VERY different facts mixed with friend’s updates. These are the headlines from today within 3 page scrolls:

  • [Video] The Clinton’s are the real predators…
  • [video] 11 pictures that prove Hillary is too old and SICK to be president.
  • THIS IS HUGE! Trump Just Got MASSIVE News That’ll Win Him The ENTIRE Election!
  • [video] Donald Trumps The Art of the Deal (2016)- Johnny Depp, Ron Howard, Alfred Molina Movies
  • NBC Poll has Trump winning by LANDSLIDE
  • The One Video Hillary Didn’t Want Released Before November 8th,
  • THIS IS HUGE! Trump Just Got MASSIVE News That’ll Win Him The ENTIRE Election!
  • Donald Trump is Right: Hillary Clinton Is a Bigot. Here Are 10 Examples.
  • Alex Jones strikes back with a powerful response to Hillary Clinton’s attack against him


Screenshot of my newsfeed. I still can’t believe how different the [online] world feels.

Now image 1h session of this every single day. Add to the mix the “confirmation bias” nature of our opinion-making (we outweigh what we agree and dismiss what we don’t) you start to see the problem. Every day you are bombarded with nudges to cluster into one extreme, both because you are attracted towards it, and also pushed against the other side.

After a week seeing this I also realized there’s no middle ground. There is no neutral position. There’s no outside of the silo. The mix of my direct friend shares pro-Clinton and the pro-Trump articles is not neutral; it’s schizophrenic. Opposites don’t cancel out in here. Indeed “neutral” articles are not that appealing to click.

My attempt to explain this goes from data (BigData) and ends in blaming computers for making polarized mobs. How? Why? Data is easy. Knowledge is hard. It requires energy, attention, focus and lots of thinking about data. Things we don’t like, but computers have lots of. Our brain loves novelty. As this trend optimizes to our behavior towards more clicks, we get smaller and smaller pieces of information in a constant stream. Then, to choose what to show, computers process the massive flow of data bits to predict how appetizing something might look to us. The flip side of “personalized experience” is “Biased experience”. Silos. We are using technology to make perfect invisible silos so we don’t need to deal with the complexity of opposing views, and the effort to reconsider your opinion or be skeptical. Less and less friction to consume, not to create, not to dig deep or be skeptical. Instead, we get an infinite buffet of perfectly small little nuggets of constant novelty we like to see processed by machines that are actually learning.

Yes, there is a data revolution. But we are not seeing the knowledge revolution of e.g. super-educated people because machines are living the knowledge revolution, while we get distracted with hyped facts on social media they feed us. In a growing ocean of data, we are drowning of very shallow waters.

If this is a pessimistic view is because I am drawn into that conclusion. I love technology, and I think there is a huge potential of greatness; but I fear we are leaving our brains out the process. I really love technology and I know there are many positive sides of this BigData machine learning revolution (that’s my job, incidentally). But may be that’s the point here, let’s not leave our brains out of the process. If this makes you think, that’s good. If it makes you go like crazy pages, … well, go explore other silos, and share what happens :)

comments powered by Disqus