Saturday, September 23, 2023

ANALYSIS: A social media danger to society

by UYLESS BLACK/Special to The Press
| July 30, 2022 1:00 AM

Let’s assume you hold conservative views on most issues. How often do you turn to MSNBC for your news? How often do you search for liberal-leaning websites to take in and evaluate their information? Let’s now assume you hold liberal views on most issues. How often do you turn to FOX for your news? How often do you search for conservative-leaning websites to take in and evaluate their information?

Unless you are a rare exception, the answers to the four questions are: seldom or never, and usually never. We humans, as verified by research on cognitive bias, stay with what we believe and trust; with what makes us comfortable.

In the political world, the word “persuadable” identifies voters who have not made up their minds about a candidate. Through manipulating what they see on the PC or smartphone screens, they can be persuaded to get off the fence and form an opinion, to develop a belief in a candidate, to vote for a candidate.

The use of negative (even false) information, and flooding that information time and again with bots and memes, is known to be an effective weapon in political campaigns. Furthermore, not many fence-sitters — the persuadables — have to leave their fences to make a difference. Just a few can affect the outcome of a national election.

As an example of how powerful this technology can be, consider the 2020 U.S. presidential election. The margin of victory for both candidates (Trump and Biden) was narrow in many “swing” states; so-named because neither Republicans nor Democrats held a clear voter advantage.

The closest margins of victory were these three states, in which the margin was under 1%. All these states were won by Biden, who captured 37 electoral votes:

Georgia, 0.23 percent (11,779 votes) — 16 electoral votes

Arizona, 0.31percent (10,457 votes) — 11 electoral votes

Wisconsin, 0.63 percent (20,682 votes) — 10 electoral votes

The key to winning swing states is garnering the votes of the undecided voters, those on the fence — the persuadables. Don’t bother with those people who are known to be Red or Blue. Ignore those folks. After all, gerrymandering has done the trick in those districts. Go after those who can be persuaded to go Red or Blue — depending on which party is targeting them, of course.

Bombard their voting precincts with blogs, websites, podcasts, video streams and media articles. Employ memes and bots, both based on artificial intelligence and massive amounts of information gleaned from monitoring user traffic.

Using these tools, perform an analysis of voters’ psychological profiles. As seen in the three swing states of Georgia, Arizona and Wisconsin, it only takes a tiny sliver of people in a swing precinct or a swing state to make the difference between victory and defeat of an entire election.

You and I, and the data from our Internet traffic, are the fodder for the social media vendors and their political customers (such as political action committees). We are the silage which they feed-on to win elections.

Should we be concerned that our emails and texts, our Facebook postings, our YouTube watching, our Amazon purchases and our Google queries are being used to influence our shopping behavior? Our voting behavior? Or who becomes the nation’s next president?

Should we care if we are quite often being fed inaccurate information, often outright lies that are not reviewed for quality? Should we care if the age-old practice of “peer review” is going away, as is accurate investigatory journalism?

If we believe the success of a democracy rests on an informed citizenry, we should care.

During his career, Uyless Black consulted and lectured in 16 countries on computer networks and the architecture of the internet. He lives in Coeur d’Alene with his wife, Holly, and their ferocious three-pound watchdog, Bitzi.

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