Mike Dwyer – Staff Writer

Nowadays, facts come at you fast. News cycles and timelines are on overdrive. Fake news is common place. Clusterfackt is an ongoing series that asks readers to question everything. Think of it as an exercise in critical thinking. Each week readers will be given a giant clusterfackt of scientific findings meant to replicate the dizzying news loops that dominate our lives. However, there’s a catch. One statement within the clusterfackt is entirely false. Identify the falsehood and win a prize by emailing and don’t repeat anything you read here without doing your research!

It’s our penultimate edition of Clusterfackt and as things wind down for these last two issues I want to focus on the question I raised last week: why is it that humans engage in fantasy and what purpose does it serve? I would like to additionally ask, how has the preeminent medium of our era- the Internet- met and exploited our need for make believe and can anything be done to right our thinking? These questions are vital to the future state of our nation and rest at the intersection of science, ethics and public policy- human constructions that are only as good as the people who build them.

Easy and unscrupulous access to technology has allowed Americans, if they so choose, to immerse themselves in a near continuous dream state of false news and questionable science. Once again, it is important to note that this state of affairs is by no means exclusively American. However, the model did arise from the American tech industry, where it still persists and transmogrifies daily, allowing a small group of individuals to affect the behavior of more than a billion people worldwide.  

This past week the New York Times released a damning indictment detailing the public relations campaigns adopted by Facebook’s CEO Mark Zuckerberg and COO Sheryl Sandberg in the wake of the 2016 presidential election and how the pair managed to control the public discourse to downplay the company’s involvement in the spread of fake news and hate speech online using unsavory political rhetoric and tactics.

In one instance the company conducted focus groups, with both liberals and conservatives, to test approaches to the controversy before bringing their message to lawmakers, including whether or not to bring other social media platforms into the fray by accusing them of similar wrongdoings.

YouTube and Twitter are likewise awash with bots, bad-actors and malarkey. Google has engaged in similar data-sharing deals and about a year ago quietly dropped their slogan “Don’t Be Evil” from their employee code of conduct. Just over a decade ago these platforms promised to bring people together and provide them access to real-time information, yet it seems they have done just the opposite, saturating humanity with nonsense while alienating us from each other and from ourselves.

How did this happen? For starters, the business model is designed to reward such behavior. Since social media comapnies generate revenue based on how much time users engage with the platform they have no incentive to tame our darker impulses that keep us tuned in. Furthermore, policing fake news and hate speech is a politically sensitive issue that could cause backlash. Zuckerberg managed to parry difficult questions during his congressional testimony but the coaching and rhetorical preparation he underwent beforehand made him come off as mechanical which, ironically, led to fake news stories that Zuckerberg is in fact a robot.

On the other hand, is it wise for congressional leaders to delegate the task of policing language to the tech giants? Fake news is not some bug in the system- it is a product of human agency and can’t be changed with a quick system update. A recent study by MIT into the differential diffusion of all the verified true and false news stories on Twitter from 2006 to 2017 found that “falsehood diffused significantly farther, faster, deeper and more broadly than the truth in all categories” and that “contrary to conventional wisdom, robots accelerated the spread of true and false news at the same rate, implying that humans, not robots, are more likely responsible for the dramatic spread of fake news.”

Our constitution is simply not prepared to handle this situation and any amendment to free speech is meant to be the responsibility of elected lawmakers. Should the social media agents choose to weigh in on free speech they risk alienating wide swaths of their consumer base, which is why executives are so reluctant to tackle the issue or even acknowledge that the problem exists in the first place. Essentially, Facebook and others have tried to establish themselves as the providers of an open platform that is not subject to the more stringent obligations of a publisher.

In next week’s final issue we will continue to ask why it is that we engage in fantasy and what purpose it serves by analyzing the specific ways that Facebook, Twitter, Google, YouTube and others have hijacked the human brain and compromised our free will.

Mike Dwyer is a 2013 graduate of CCRI’s school of nursing and has since worked as a registered nurse in and around his hometown of Newport, Rhode Island. Writing has been a life-long passion (Re: obsession) and in 2016 Mike enrolled at RIC to pursue a BA in English literature. He is a senior planning to graduate next Spring, after which he will stay local, stay weird and stay learning.