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The Binary World of Antisocial Media

I love my wife and children. I love radio. I love chocolate HobNobs. I love teaching my students. Each of the above statements is true. Ea...

06 July 2016

The Binary World of Antisocial Media

I love my wife and children. I love radio. I love chocolate HobNobs. I love teaching my students.

Each of the above statements is true. Each carries a nuanced meaning. "Love" means something different in each context, as is readily understood in human communication. There are varied meanings, and many more than fifty shades of grey.

Now replace "love" with "like". Go online, to what is cynically called social media. The nuances vanish. I have a binary option; I can "like" something, and instantly tell Google or Facebook HQ to deliver more of the similar to me in their endless, automated infinet battle to keep my eyeballs locked. Or I can ignore it, thereby ensuring I see "less like this" in future.

Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat. Babies, cute pets, mundane food and inspirational quotes. It would be so utterly trivial if it wasn't so important. I'm now seriously worried for the future of understanding, in a binary world which is becoming dangerously polarised.

Much of the above is commonplace argument, brought into stark relief by the seismic political events of the past fortnight here in the UK.

Let's sum up the background. Social media creates echo chambers in which our "likes" and dislikes are constantly reinforced. We start by choosing a circle of like minded contacts, the views of whom in turn are refined by algorithm so I see more and more stuff from folk I've interacted with or "liked".  I become isolated from other views. I build my own virtual walls, I create my own digital silo.

As a journalist my relationship with Twitter is (on one level at least) professional.

I follow people because they are important, useful or interesting. I like to think I have the political spectrum covered; go through the people I follow and you'll find every shade of politics in there somewhere including, in the Brexit referendum just gone, Leavers and Remainers in roughly equal measure. Yet the posts I saw during the campaign were probably skewed 70:30 towards Remain. That's probably because the algorithms spot I interact more with Remain types (revealed by post-poll analysis to be graduates, middle class, city based and so on) than I do with Leavers.

Importantly I don't interact with them about politics (I'm old fashioned enough to believe in journalistic celibacy of opinion, admittedly with a few lapses as I get older) but about theatre, pop-up streetfood stands or bike lanes in Leeds - educated, middle class, arty-graduate stuff. Not hardcore politics. I'm sorry, I can't help liking Shakespeare and hating football; blame 57 years of social conditioning. But the algorithms don't spot those nuances, they just count clicks and replies.

It gets worse. Worse than having my prejudices confirmed all the time, because antisocial media shows me more of the similar, I never see moderate views from people I disagree with.

I see plenty of extreme views, cut, pasted and mocked by my circle. I see plenty of venom directed at individuals. I see adoring, uncritical and unmoderated support for others. I never see the nuances.

This is where events like Bradford Politics in the Pub are so brilliant. In real life it's possible to have a discussion with someone I've not met before, whose opinions I may not be familiar with, or who I may even have a dislike for based on third-party comments made by my "friends" in antisocial media, only to find they're actually OK. They have some good points to make.

Corbynite or Thatcherite, they both want to make my patch a better place. They disagree fundamentally about how to achieve that end, but as I sit with a pint and listen, I make eye contact. I learn something I didn't know before about their world view ... because antisocial media represented their views through the filter of scorn and hate.

Of course, analogue media used to do this is a matter of course. As I read my dead tree newspaper a skilful sub editor would catch my eye with a deft headline and a great opening par, and I found myself reading an article about fly fishing. Or nuclear fusion. Or why the Tories/Labour/LibDems might not be baby-eating/Luddite/starry-eyed dreamers after all.

This doesn't happen in Binary World. I just see yet more sushi bars coming to Leeds, theatre openings, why every Remainer/Leaver is an idiot, why Blair is a murderer/genius, and why radio is dead. Everyone seems to agree on the last one. Pity the numbers (if you look them up) tell a different story. But antisocial media won't tell you that one.

If we're going to get out of the confusion we're in at the moment, post referendum vote, it's more important than ever that moderate voice are heard. Moderation in all things.

As I've written before we need politicians prepared to admit they don't have the perfect answer, but who may have something to contribute to the debate. Arguments that might be nuanced, and which the audience is smart enough to understand if they get a chance to hear them.

Like the chocolate HobNobs. I love them, so long as they're plain. Not the milk chocolate ones, they're crap.




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