Due to higher accessibility of data in the contemporary age we are, in general1, more informed than people 20-30 years ago. This includes awareness about the ways information can be biased, fabricated, or plain wrong: news articles influenced by bribes, party allegiances, sensationalism, bad sources (it has been shown that about 19% of sources quoted in all articles are false, whereas 73% of articles web-wide don't even show their sources2), shows misrepresenting their topics due to entertainment focus, poor research or time constraints. Even scientific papers are not always trustworthy due to corporation sponsors and obsession about the number of citations 3. With the advancements in Machine Learning, Neural Networks and Procedural Generation, we are unable to even trust that a video of a person speaking4 is genuine or that a picture was taken in the visible weather conditions5.
Many of these factors are dictated by the position media plays in capitalism, which expresses any human venture in the limited terms of a "business". News and media also have to conform to this format, giving rise to the Attention Economy6, which has not only shaped the way we consume media, but also influenced the modern discourse. With information and news on a myriad of global issues, we are expected to have an opinion on all of them, which does not leave time to get informed or even familiar with the topics before they encounter a million differing opinions on them and are asked to take sides.
Now, reasonably, you would protest that in this scenario nobody has to get involved in the debate the second they see it without researching it, and that they have the resources to do this research. But while we do have the resources, we might not always have the means.
Say, for the sake of argument, we have an article with an outrageous headline. Ideally, you would click on it, read it, check the host website, check the author, look at their sources, check their credibility. That would make you fully informed not necessarily on the issue at hand, but at least on this specific interpretation of it. But you have a job. Or you are studying. You stumbled upon this article scrolling through your news feed and don't have a stake in it. You are tired. Most importantly, your biases from before make you feel the article is not worth your time, but the headline lingers in your head, making an ever-so-slight connection and confirming one of your held opinions.
Now, let's consider the formation of the aforementioned bias. Again, ideally, it was formed by reading scientific articles or accounts from experts on both sides. But most likely you formed these opinions from TED talks, YouTube videos, discussions with friends or comment-section strangers, and, of course, skim reading other sensationalist headlines. Unavoidably these sources you recognize as untrustworthy shape your worldview.
Which is not something new or unexpected. News programmes and newspapers would bring news on different, often disconnected topics just like any web tabloid nowadays. However, with the addition of tools for discussion baked into the means by which we consume our news, everyone is encouraged to have and express their opinions on topics at hand, and this is where the volume of the conversation starts to win out over the content.
Which, to be honest, is also nothing new or unexpected. This phenomena is amplified once everyone gets a voice. Consider, for example, Friedrich Nietzsche. Whereas the individual or his contemporaries could have a nuanced discussion on the meaning of self-realization, if we broaden the discussion of his works to everyone who has heard the name, we need to keep the topic on the idea of the Superman, or how this philosopher has influenced the Nazis, unless we want to lose a lot of the participants. Now, in the digital discussion world nobody worries about leaving someone out, but ideas with nuance will simply sink to the bottom while the clearer the point and the clearer the side, the further it will go.
Due to everyone being overwhelmed with content, we have grown used to judging winners of discussions, or even points of argument by our emotional reaction to them rather than a researched position. Even still, our research is usually also sub-par due to having to keep up with a plethora of topics.
The sinking of nuance is not just an inherent feature of a discussion with many participants. It is also being assisted by the monolith that are the social media platforms. They both directly and indirectly control the discourse on several fronts. Firstly, the platform usually comes with inherent limitations of content, which is usually reasonable but should still be mentioned. Secondly, we have the popularity or wealth contest, where brands, corporations and celebrities automatically have a "louder" voice. Lastly, we have a sinister invisible world of algorithms shaping our intake of information.
This is where the Attention Economy comes into play. Since the contemporary "social Internet" has commodified peoples' time (and attention), methods were introduced to maximize engagement over anything else. This leads people onto "happy paths" of agreeableness in their news intake. This means that if the algorithm detects a pattern of a worldview, this view will be enforced, and possibly exaggerated in the course of the user's continued use of a social media platform (my "a" there is misleading, as all companies dealing with user data exchange consumer information until your identity is ubiquitous in the majority of your web interactions). This practice also helps the dumbing down of discourse, as a simplified one-sided sentiment is easier to place in the narrative a user is subscribed to. It goes without saying that the happy path strategy also rewards the most eye catching and scandalous ways of reporting news.
Reinforcement of the side you agree with and constant vilification of the other is the "equalibrium" that settles down with prolonged exposure of your Internet identity7. Comments that receive most interaction are at the top, meaning that someone hateful or uneducated receives a platform by the merit of being corrected or ""shut down"".
Engagement = Endorsement. That would be the tl;dr of this entire post. That is the axiom that the combination of interactivity and tailoring of our news has created. Engagement is now a greater currency than Truth, and that's far from just the financial meaning. Engagement inescapably shapes thought, broadens the overton window and destroys nuance. Engagement is the form capital has decided to take form in the digital world and it forces information to be filtered through it.
There are reasons to be optimistic. If we stay apolitical (besides implying that capitalism might not be a force just for good) until the end, we could reason that due to engagement being widely encouraged and happy paths introduced, it might make people more interested in politics. Hell, the acceleration of discourse might cause more swift political change. Of course, this optimism is disregarding the very real possibility of fearmongering and slander being used to further extremist policy.
Alright, that attempt at optimism didn't quite work out.
How about this - there is a way to better the state of discourse. Starting with yourself. The very first step would be to pick your battles. It is impossible to keep up with the zeitgeist these days. It is best to focus on the issues/topics you believe are most important, and learn about them. The next step would be to dedicate time to genuinely learn about these topics. To avoid the easy paths. Hell, maybe even use DuckDuckGo to get less biased results. But most importantly, to pay attention and spot bullshit. For example, have you checked any of the sources of this post? All of them lead to chicken on a raft. I made up some statistics. This whole thing was an unresearched opinion piece pieced together from various memories of random videos, threads, and articles. Ironic, I know.
Heeding this would prove its point.
And disregarding this would mean that you probably learned something from it.
So, it's 3:36 AM, I got carried away working on the design of this page, and am now writing this just to see how a post looks.
And all this started with an idea for a blogpost. The only problem, of course - I didn't have a blog at that moment.
So here we are. Oh, might as well mention the topic of the post I started all this over so I don't forget: It's about materialistic minimalism and how our virtual "baggage" clashes with material freedom (or acts as an additional step in an attempt of freeing yourself)
I might just leave it at that for now until I think of a way to give this topic justice.