Enough With My Freedoms: Media and our Complicity in Tragedy

From a friend:

“I think the preventative measures you wrote about can be achieved through school, but we should take a step back. An even greater preventative measure involves cutting out the source of the psychosis, our media and modern movies. The Hollywood that he was living in his head was born from the messages that he lived through and those that we continue to subject children to. We need to change media.”

This and a variety of insightful reads compel me to share my thoughts on culture, which had already been on my mind days before the shooting for a different reason. I was looking at the trending list on my Facebook news feed; side by side were the headline about Boko Haram and the then-still-missing kidnapped schoolgirls, and a headline about Donald Sterling getting kicked out of his ownership of the Clippers by the NBA. This pairing really concerned me. How could these two stories be anywhere close to the same stature? They sure look to be equally important on my screen: same font size, same list. What exactly does “trending” mean? Is that what we think is important or whatFacebook thinks we think is important? That’s when I realized how manipulative Facebook could be with our news. Read the above link and this Vox article to see what I mean.

I don’t believe that Donald Sterling is a good person or that he is justified in any way for what he said. But I also don’t think our social media is justified in blowing a private statement into wild proportions and burning him at the stake. (I also don’t think the NBA’s decision is appropriate in comparison to the penalties they give out for much more inappropriate acts by players and coaches throughout the years, but that’s not the central argument here.)

Think what you think about this specific racism incident, but also seriously consider whether, if you were a citizen in New England in the 17th century and had Facebook, you would NOT have been complicit in the hysteria of the Salem Witch Trials. Or McCarthyism during the Cold War. Or whether, in a future that no longer seems as far as 1984 was, you’ll find the comments you make in private (let’s not even argue that we haven’t each made an insensitive comment once in our lives), or in your mind, spread like a virus through the web, and feel completely justified in becoming the scapegoat.

The problem with social media like Facebook is that people believe they are using a tool of communication, where in fact they are themselves tools in a machine of sensationalism. And that machine isn’t even driven by any specific journalistic mission, liberal or conservative, worldly or local. It’s driven by an algorithm written by somebody with a CS degree that feeds on its only source of appetite: raw views. Whatever drives readership drives profits. Social media itself is viral.

A few days ago in my conversations with Dylan on the Tube in London, I argued for the following new stance in computer ethics: that the government should compel sites like Facebook, Twitter, Google, etc. – anything that collects data about us – to restructure their terms of use statements to actually intentionally ensure that all their behind-the-scenes uses of data are fully communicated to users. Whether that is a twenty-minute interactive slideshow or game that requires 100% attention before every Facebook user can make his or her next login attempt or something else is a subject of a different conversation (like my final paper from CS181 Ethics of Computers), but suffice it to say that people get much more than they pay for with social media, and that we deserve to know exactly what that is. It’s our moral responsibility to know, but first it’s their ethical responsibility to make sure we know.

This in turn would lead to a collective awareness of how Facebook may or may not be biasing certain types of stories, like Donald Sterling, and promoting them more widely because they are more likely to be read, thus distorting the impression of objective importance. We should all clearly understand what is subjective on our News Feeds, what is profit-driven, and decide for ourselves if we want to enable that through our participation. Through doing nothing at all but clicking refresh. We should understand our responsibility as likers and sharers of the sensational, be it an old man’s private thoughts or a terrorist group kidnapping hundreds of school girls.

Or a boy enacting vengeance on that very sensational culture.

In terms of what led Rodgers to do what he did, I do not think culture is the number one culprit. I think access to guns is the most to blame (not even worth my time to write about), and mental health (see my last post) next before media culture, and we should work to create political change in that order. But that means that we ultimately do have to do something about our culture. I don’t care how fun it is to watch Dexter, or American Psycho, or play Grand Theft Auto, or share misogynistic memes, or ridicule the insecure on YouTube. Just because it’s free doesn’t mean it’s OK. Just because everybody does it doesn’t mean it’s OK. Evolution has not prepared us to be viral beings. And as I watch the tragedies hit closer and closer to home, I’m preparing myself to say, enough with my complicity.

To say, as fun as it might be to be able to shoot a gun at a shooting range, if it means that somebody can use it to kill people in a fit of rage, I am willing to sacrifice my right to ever shoot one again, and will do so of my own accord until it is law.

To say, as great as R-rated movies or M-rated movies are as works of art or storytelling, if it means that somebody who is less able to discern fact from fiction can be inspired to enact violence in real life, I am willing to sacrifice my right to watch them without passing something like a psychological exam, and will sacrifice of my own accord until such a system is put in place.

To say, as much as I love Facebook and YouTube for connecting me with my friends and my community, if it means that somebody is becoming distanced from that community and driven to depression by what is fed to him on the Feed, I am willing to suspend or delete my account until my peers in Menlo Park commit to an ethical transparency to their business.

To say, enough with my American freedoms, if it means preserving an America that I can be proud of.

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