COLUMN: Social media only showing us what we want to see

The U.S. election has brought the ugly truth of social media to light like never before

The very first thing I do most workday mornings, after turning off that 6 a.m. alarm, is scroll through my Facebook feed.

Why?

Because I absolutely need to know all the things going on in the world that I honestly can do nothing about. And I need to know this before my coffee, before I wake up my kids, before I even brush my teeth.

It’s a time-honoured tradition of newsies, isn’t it? Wake up, scan the headlines, scowl at the competition, plot your day. Add coffee as required.

Twenty years ago, I started my day differently. The dailies thumped up against my house at 4 a.m. I would put on my robe and slippers, dig in the bushes, dry them off, and flip through the pages as I made breakfast. I bought my magazines at the grocery store checkout, and knew when fresh ones would be hitting the stands.

There were national stories and images in print that bothered me, and ones that I loved. There were stories I didn’t agree with and those I didn’t care about. I could figure out which papers were my favourites by checking with the choices made by editors of those newspapers, deeming them too conservative or too sensational for my mood of the day. Or deeming them just right.

I didn’t share funny cartoons online back then. I clipped them out, stuck them to my fridge, and when friends and family would visit they’d see them and giggle, too.

The only control I had over the news ‘feed’ in those days was to turn the page. I am starting to miss that, and I know I’m not alone.

The U.S. election has brought the ugly truth of social media to light like never before. And that truth is, for the most part, if you’re not careful, you’ll end up being fed online stories you already are interested in and agree with.

Every ad you click on helps decide the news you’ll see. Every item you search for in your browser leads back to bring you an ad. Every time you like a story, you’re telling someone behind your computer what you’d like to see next. There are algorithms at play that only those who work in the tech sector will ever understand.

But however they’re doing it, they’re drowning us in cognitive dissonance. You. Me. The guy next to you in the coffee shop scrolling through his phone. All of us.

Mark Zuckerberg, founder of Facebook, is answering to this very disturbing problem this week, trying to allay fears that he’s manipulating the masses.

As a member of the media, I should have been paying better attention to this all along. I should have safeguarded myself by making sure I triangulated my news sources, kept reading print as much as possible, and got offline way more than I have.

But I’m a GenXer, so I didn’t. Quite the contrary, I would be what we called an early adopter and now I’m so embedded I eat social media for breakfast. And with breakfast. And lunch. And when the kids aren’t looking, then with my dinner, too.

And most of the time, I’m reading news. If I’m not reading news, I’m reading opinions on news. And of course, sharing memes.

Still, the election results shocked me, because I never once saw a positive story about Donald Trump. Since I’m constantly questioning the world around me, I had to ask myself ‘why is that?’

Well, for the most part, I follow what internet trolls would call the leftist media. That’s because by the time this election campaign started, I was already deeply entrenched in their social pages as a lover of world news, opinions, ‘life’ pages, and the arts.

Slowly, but surely, all of those types of stories were replaced by election news. Even magazine-gracing force Brangelina had to erupt in a mid-air family feud in order to get any press time.

As the campaign season heated up, I devoured every left-wing article, meme and comic that dripped through my Facebook feeds. I shared, I LOL’d, I retweeted, I commented.

Now I’m throwing it all up a little. It’s not just the outcome of the election that left a bitter taste in my mouth. I wanted to know how the mainstream media generally failed to get their finger on the pulse of their country.

“That’s our job!,” I was crying in the days after Nov. 8. How did they get it so wrong?

They probably didn’t. I just didn’t follow the right news outlet’s pages. I guess at 6 a.m., the only opinions I am ready to digest are the ones I already subscribe to.

It’s a pretty compelling argument for keeping print alive, and keeping social media activity in check.

Jessica Peters is a reporter with the Chilliwack Progress

 

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