Change the Conversation

If hateful politics is an issue for you, then you might be part of the problem.

As we march dishearteningly towards a contentious mid-term election day, with the Brett Kavanaugh hearings, yet another hurricane, a missing (and presumed murdered) journalist, and Kanye West visiting the White House in our immediate wake, it has come time once again to wade through a swamp of lies, sensationalism and hyperbole that covers the once fertile ground of the internet in a desperate search for truth.

Arguably, some new truths have been discovered and some platforms have been used to give the disenfranchised more power in the new digital landscape, but the web is quickly turning into a vast wasteland instead of a virtual utopia. And while the founders of the web certainly worried that their invention could be used to do more harm than good, I’m not sure they could have envisioned the negative effects of their Frankenstein.

While it is easy to blame Dr. Frankenstein, Mark Zuckerberg, Steve Jobs and other tech-Gods for the horrific monsters they brought to life, perhaps their greatest sin was simply being too naive, about humans.

In March of 2018 researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) released a study that found that, from 2006 to 2017 fake news was 70-percent more likely to spread than stories that are true, by human beings. The authors, Soroush Vosoughi, Deb Roy and Sinan Aral published their findings in Science. According to the abstract:

We found that false news was more novel than true news, which suggests that people were more likely to share novel information. Whereas false stories inspired fear, disgust, and surprise in replies, true stories inspired anticipation, sadness, joy, and trust. Contrary to conventional wisdom, robots accelerated the spread of true and false news at the same rate, implying that false news spreads more than the truth because humans, not robots, are more likely to spread it.

What this suggests is that while it is easy to blame Russia, bots, Uncle Bob, and technology for the spread of false information (most of which has to do with politics according to the study), the real blame of what the internet has become should mostly be placed on those of us who use it.

The web certainly has changed most forms of traditional media and has made all of them more democratic. But democracy, as we have seen, ain’t always all it’s cracked up to be. Since the success of Yellow Journalism in the 1890’s it has been proven that the more sensationalized the news, the larger and more engaged the audience becomes. Despite all the changes in how we get and share our news we can’t seem to escape our morbid curiosity for the most horrific and titillating stories the media have to offer, and, despite their lack of veracity, share them with as many people as possible.

Graphic from the International Federation of Library Associations & Institutions

While Facebook, Twitter and Google struggle to combat fake news, with some recent success, we can’t count on Dr. Frankenstein, or the angry mob, to stop the spread of the kind of news we’ve been craving and sharing since the 1890’s, and most likely even before then.( My guess is that the news shared on our ancestors’ caves’ walls was also sensationalized.)

The evolution of media has consistently taken advantage of our preference for the vulgar and scandalous and created content that satisfies the worst of human nature. It only makes sense that we would share the worst of the web with everyone we know so that we can sink through this cesspool together. But we don’t have to.

Human nature has another side too—love, compassion, and beauty. What would happen if those were the stories we shared?  It might just shift the audience away from sensationalism, towards the truth and reveal the better parts of humanity.

Nate House moved to Calumet Street with his wife Mary Conway several months ago after living on the Delaware Bayshore for two years.Before that they lived in Philadelphia neighborhoods from the Northeast to South Philly. They teach English, Communications and Gender Studies at Community College of Philadelphia. Links to other stories about birds, dogs and magical fish can be found at www.natehouse.wordpress.com.

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