A Chaos of Intention: Social Media in an Era of Mass Manipulation
I cannot stop the weather machine! Luke Spencer shrieks as the Cassadine family’s evil plot to destroy his hometown of Port Charles, New York inexorably unfolds. He’s wrested the controls from his adversary, but can’t budge the lever that’s set all the way to total freeze, and now, everything and everyone he’s ever loved is going to be refrigerated into oblivion.
I used to watch General Hospital, starting at age seven, when my mother picked up the habit in college. Though this scene was before my time, that famous phrase sticks in my mind, both for its absurdity and for its perfect expression of total helplessness against an intricate and relentless stratagem.
When Sharing Isn’t Caring
What brings this phrase to mind at this moment is the powerful machine that’s been set upon us now, a machine that helped fix the presidential election and that continues to manipulate the media, the political system, our culture, and individual understanding. Using ads, social media posts, fake profiles, bots, paid users, images, and other methods, it appears that hostile foreign interests—collaborating with domestic politicians, corporations, and individuals of financial means with personal (financial) stakes in political outcomes—successfully mislead, confused, divided, and manipulated voters.
As social media developed and integrated into the ways we relate to one another, we learned to express ourselves through the “share” or “retweet.” We repost the thoughts of others—compelling articles, images, and statements that resonate with us somehow. This is constructive where authentic stories serve to inform and inspire. However, this practice of “sharing” has made social media the perfect stage for propaganda, a word derived from propagate, an origin that reflects the need for manipulative information, in order to be effective, to be shared extensively, spread far and wide.
Thus, unwitting social media users become cogs in a propaganda machine that, indeed, in the case of the election, no one could stop before it accomplished its mission. We really couldn’t stop the weather machine.
It appears that Facebook, Google, and Twitter gave hostile interests figurative megaphones. Facebook even “embedded” employees in Trump’s campaign to “micro-target” voters. It seems that these companies, above all, wanted to get paid, no matter the message.
Facebook, Twitter, and Google didn’t buy the tiki torches, but they certainly offered matches.
As congress investigates the extent to which social media played a role in Russian interference in the election, the forces of disinformation appear to be still at work on the platforms most of us use every day. And those of us who use these platforms to relate to one another, to keep in touch, to share ideas, seem to be still under an illusion that social media is a neutral medium, despite the ads we see in the margins and feeds, and despite the bots we know are tweeting in the millions to control the narrative not only on Twitter, but in the media in general.
Defrosting the Turkey
So, can we stop the weather machine? Are we really stuck in deep freeze?
When a story seems to resonate, check the source and its intention. What other stories does it run? Are they credible? Do they seem slanted? Do a secondary search on the issue. Propaganda is targeting people all along the political spectrum. Among other methods, it may attempt to transfer your genuine sentiments about an injustice onto a scapegoat to hide the truth and further a particular political agenda that may not be in anyone’s best interest.
More importantly, I think this episode in history points out the necessity of voicing insights gleaned from real human experience. Telling and listening to real stories of real lives in full detail are much more powerful acts than repeating, reposting, and retweeting. The recording, keeping, and telling of stories of actual human experience should be enshrined as a measure of protection of human freedom and dignity.
Perhaps if we start believing in people and seriously listening to what really happened to them, we can reconnect with a lost authenticity, truth that’s been buried—but far from dead.
History is kind. It offers lessons we can learn from to avoid wrongdoing and suffering. We don’t have to repeat the mistakes of humanity. We can get better. We were designed to evolve.
That’s my mission in telling my own stories through essay and poetry, in telling the stories of my family, and in this project of writing the story of my great uncle Stefan. I offer these stories for my own good and the good they might be able to do all of us.
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