The Football Stadium of Social Media

Last year was my final year as a Political Science major in the undergraduate program of Kean. In our capstone presidency class, we spent a great deal of time discussing the Russian Probe, the Mueller investigation and election hacking. These were all phrases referring to roughly the same thing: Trump’s involvement with Russian interference of the 2016 presidential election. Conversations were heated. Emotions were high. But at the end of the day, I don’t think any of us fully understood the mechanisms at play or how each one of us had performed a role. Many of the details of the investigation are confidential because there is an ongoing case. More of the details are redacted because the government is involved. And when I see the word ‘hacking,’ I assume that I don’t understand it and move on to things that I will comprehend.

I found the article, ‘How Social Media Took Us From Tahrir Square to Donald Trump,’ by Zeynep Tufekci, to be incredibly insightful and illuminating. The article calls into question various information gatekeepers and discusses how technology, social media and search engines “create an environment where misinformation thrives, and even true information can confuse and paralyze rather than informing and illuminating.”

The article is broken into five sections which progress through the evolution of the internet, social media and their relationship to fake news from the Arab Spring to the Trump presidency. The first section, The Euphoria of Discovery, covers the importance of technology in the Arab Spring, 2011. Activists were emboldened in spite of being shut down by the Egyptian government. Social media was touted, as article mentions, as eliminating “pluralistic ignorance—the belief that one is alone in one’s views when in reality everyone has been collectively silenced.”

Section two, The Audacity of Hope, Tufecki mentions, “we entered a period of the technology powering the underdog.” Barack Obama. The Arab spring. However, there was also the emergence of microtargeting, especially on Facebook. Havoc was being wreaked with the public sphere, first in small ways which would devolve into deep problematic ways. Tufecki claims, “it was a shift from a public, collective politics to a more private, scattered one, with political actors collecting more and more personal data to figure out how to push just the right buttons, person by person and out of sight.” The implications are insidious and far-reaching.

Section 3, The Illusion of Immunity, Tufecki points out that “the US National Security Agency had an arsenal of hacking tools based on vulnerabilities in digital technologies—bugs, secret backdoors, exploits, shortcuts in the (very advanced) math, and massive computing power.” There was considerable debate during this time about how much surveillance is too much surveillance. For many Edward Snowden became the hero that revealed the extent of government surveillance on US citizens. For others, he was a traitor that single-handedly threatened US national security by exposing secrets. Most feel some sense of relief that behind the scenes, someone is protecting the nation from invasion. Tufecki begins to lay the groundwork in this section for the understanding that the US has offensive strength, but not defensive integrity.

Section 4, The Power of Platforms, emphasizes the significance of Twitter and its popularity with journalists as well as politically engaged people. Tufecki states, “Its open philosophy and easygoing approach to pseudonyms suits rebels around the world, but it also appeals to anonymous trolls who hurl abuse at women, dissidents, and minorities.” It has been a breeding ground for shallow discourse and dispute. Tufecki references the popular “rapid-fire format,” which provides tools to virtual private networks, while simultaneously allowing one to cover one’s traces online. These networks then used these tools to set up fake local news organizations on social media across the US. She reveals these very troubling details, “There they started posting materials aimed at fomenting polarization. The Russian trolls posed as American Muslims with terrorist sympathies and as white supremacists who opposed immigration. They posed as Black Lives Matter activists exposing police brutality and as people who wanted to acquire guns to shoot police officers. In so doing, they not only fanned the flames of the division but provided those in each group with evidence that their imagined opponents were indeed as horrible as they suspected. These trolls also incessantly harassed journalists and Clinton supporters online, resulting in a flurry of news stories about the topic and fueling a (self-fulfilling) narrative of polarization among the Democrats.”

And we, the liberal-minded socially conscious fell for it hook, line and sinker. I like to think I am reasonably intelligent and tend to question the source of the material I read. The insidious nature of the fake news campaign was subtle in its blatancy. I finally understand at the core, the Russian involvement in the election and how I indirectly played a role in electing Trump. If I don’t understand, and people like me don’t understand, then he will again be successful should he run in 2020. I joined those arguments on Facebook. I shared and posted and thought I was civically minded and accountable. Active. Engaged. When in fact, I was a political pawn. How un-evolved and childish in a way. While emotions can spawn great activist movements, longevity relies on analytical thinking and the power of developed rhetoric. This rapid-fire format of social media instead encourages quick, harsh comebacks rooted in emotion.

Section five, The Lessons of the Era, held some gems. Tufecki states that “Old gatekeepers failed in many ways, and no doubt that failure helped fuel mistrust and doubted; but the new gatekeepers succeed by fueling mistrust and doubt, as long as the clicks keep coming. Rather, the problem is that when we encounter opposing views in the age and context of social media, it’s not like reading them in a newspaper while sitting alone. It’s like hearing them from the opposing team while sitting with our fellow fans in a football stadium.”
“Our cognitive universe isn’t an echo chamber, but our social one is. This is why the various projects for fact-checking claims in the news, while valuable, don’t convince people. Belonging is stronger than facts.” Social media and the internet make the world “more open and connected.” Tufecki closes with this csection with a compelling question, Open to what, and connected how?

Section 6, The Way Forward, left me with the understanding that we must always use our cognitive abilities to reflect on whether we are “joining the flock” or jumping into the mob mentality which in the end recreates the pluralistic ignorance we were hoping to abolish. I appreciated Tufecki’s interesting distinction: “it is the flow of attention, not information (which we already have too much of), that matters.”

Finally, this moving reminder: “Power always learns, and powerful tools always fall into its hands. This is a hard lesson of history but a solid one.” This is a call to grow beyond emotional content, to step out of the crossfire and use our cognitive ability. Digest material. Reflect. Analyze. Critically think. And then engage.

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