How social media is crippling democracy, and why we seem powerless to stop it

Tech-assisted gaslighting is destroying truth, justice, and the American way. Can anything be done?
Written by Jason Perlow, Senior Contributing Writer
Image: ZDNet

So, how is everyone's anxiety doing? Are our coping mechanisms firing on all cylinders? Are we being mindful and living in the present moment? Great. Because we're all going to need to be experts on it, for at least the next four years or even longer.

A few years ago, I wrote about a phenomenon I called "Technology Augmented Autism." I argued that our over-reliance on social media tools such as Facebook and Twitter has amplified the existing personality characteristics of persons who already reside on the autism spectrum, including ADD/ADHD and other socially developmental related issues, such as Asperger's.

Because so many of us that "are on the spectrum" work in technology, and so many of us use these tools for business and not just for recreational purposes, we all have to work extra hard to hone our "soft" skills, as all of these tools are not particularly helpful in developing our interpersonal relationships and how we interact with people in the real world.

The more disconnected from face-to-face relationships we become, the more our soft skills atrophy. And these tools not only make the soft skills deteriorate, but they also reinforce bad habits and amplify our negative personality traits.

We all know someone whose personality traits are amplified in this way.

These tools can do much more than alter and distort the way we perceive our relationships with others and how others perceive us. These tools can alter our very sense of reality.

How we perceive communications from public sources and so-called news outlets is very different in the age of social media than from previous decades.

Mixed in with traditional news outlets, whether they lean to the right or the left -- such as the legacy broadcasters and newspapers -- is an entire class of publication that does not respect the mores of traditional journalism and that have a distinct and politically skewed agenda. Breitbart, for example, operates in this category.

Or they may be looking simply to generate page views through flat-out prevarication and inflammatory exaggerations. In other words, fake news.

There are other sites that straddle the line between entertainment/media snacking and real journalism -- such as Buzzfeed. Some of the material is valuable, highly informative, well-researched, and peer reviewed by investigative journalists who have come from legacy media backgrounds.

Sometimes they respect the mores of traditional journalism and sometimes they don't. You have to accept this at face value.

This graphic, which went viral on the image sharing site imgur during December of last year, was submitted by an anonymous user. While some of the quadrant placements here are certainly up for debate and by all means not all-inclusive (Buzzfeed for example is not placed here, as well as a number of other voices in conservative, moderate, and liberal new media and alternative press), it is not a bad starting point for discussion.

Image: Imgur

It should be fairly straightforward to evaluate these sources. An educated reader with a general understanding of the interpretive lens of each of the news sources above is already empowered to make an informed judgment.

The problem is most of us don't just seek these sources out directly and consume them in a careful and deliberate manner.

We are now living in the information age, and we're all victims of Technology Augmented Autism. We all have tiny little attention spans, and we consume news by information snacking. In all likelihood, most people looking at this article right now probably did not get past the first 200 words.

More and more Americans are using Facebook and Twitter as primary news sources. If you've spent any time on them, you will immediately notice that the noise-to-signal ratio on those services is unbelievably high, fed with a mix of sources ranging from the legitimate to completely fake news into a sausage casing of dubious origin and expiration date.

In the case of Facebook, the service's algorithm will ensure that you will read shared news from viewpoints similar to your own. Your feedback loop is in essence, self-curated based on what you actually "like." And if you don't like your friends and what they share, you can unfollow and unfriend them, thus whittling down the echo chamber to an even smaller sample size, depending on how many friends you have.

With Twitter, you're getting a raw feed. Compared to Facebook, all the information you receive is opt-in, because you are subscribing to read tweets from specific people, and you might not be aware of the biases of those people immediately. But, in a sense, it is also curated, because if you don't like what people are saying, you just unfollow them. And thus your sample size, much like on Facebook, becomes a reflection of what you want to hear.

So, everyone is seeing things through their own filter. Here's the fun part: Your filter is also filtered. And you have no control over that whatsoever. It can be edited and changed, and you might not even realize it.

If this is starting to sound like we've always been at war with Eastasia, well, it is.

Traditionally, the legacy news outlets -- that big gray circle in the middle in the above graphic -- has had a working relationship with the US government, particularly the Executive Branch.

It hasn't always been rosy, but typically, they have been allowed to ask questions, and they've had enough access using their on-site staff at the White House to be able to accurately report, with some level of transparency, on what is exactly happening in the highest levels of our administration.

That tradition looks like it is about to be discarded. The White House now appears likely to determine which sources will have access at all, and what level of scrutiny will be permitted.

Which outlets are chosen for preferred access and what is to be told to them is going to greatly impact what information is relayed to us, what form it will take, and how it is consumed. Because when it comes to operating in an agile fashion on social media, the outlets in the gray circle are heavily disadvantaged. The ones that are highly agile aren't necessarily fair and balanced either.

If things continue on this path, then we have gone past simple Technology Augmented Autism, which is entirely self-inflicted, and instead into what I now call "Technology Assisted Gaslighting," or TAG.

And this is far more nefarious than anyone could have possibly imagined.

Well, perhaps Philip K. Dick imagined it. But those were works of sci-fi. Nobody truly believed such things of dystopian nightmares would be realized in the United States of America.

Through systematic and persistent denial, misdirection, contradiction, and lying, and using social media as the platform for this activity, if such a scenario where traditional outlets are not given equal access, we would all be the unwitting subjects of mind control experiments.

Perhaps not in a strictly North Korean or Soviet sense, where the government itself is the media. But if only the most unscrupulous outlets -- those willing to conform to the will of a corrupt presidency -- are the ones granted access, and those same outlets happen to be the most adept at using social media, then we need to reconsider the actual value of social media in the first place.

We need to go old school. As American citizens, we need to shed our Technology Augmented Autism to become free thinkers and to choose our sources wisely.

We need to read beyond the first 200 words and all become critical thinkers, question every single thing we read on social media, read the story from as many sources as possible, and learn to recognize which sources to disregard and classify as the enemies of American journalistic values, which are dividing and lying to us.

I will refuse to be gaslighted through social media. And I hope my readers will as well.

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