These days, the value of a political statement or news story is measured by the number of likes and shares. The algorithms of social media are indiscriminate – they do not consider who wrote the story, the source of the story, or how human the owner of the accounts sharing the story is. These algorithms invite and reward clickbait titles. Popularity is tracked and rewarded with prominent placement, thus increasing popularity. It’s a vicious cycle that played a role in the way we experienced the 2016 election.
It’s not just news. Social media has us measuring friendship the wrong way, too.
The various algorithms designed to keep us glued to our screens (so that companies can sell our time and attention to advertisers) show us content that we agree with because we are more likely to continue browsing when our opinions are validated. Plus, according to several studies, the likes and shares trigger a dopamine release similar to receiving a hug. The Wall Street Journal created sample Facebook news feeds to show how differently a Democrat and a Republican were experiencing election news.
Being sensitive to the negative reaction, social media companies struggle to balance profit, speech, and corporate social responsibility. Twitter recently shut down accounts affiliated with the neo-Nazi website Daily Stormer and continues to allow for chronological view of your Twitter feed. Facebook continually adjusts its news feed algorithm by tracking clickbait and recently by reducing the prominence of posts by frequent posters (whom they have deemed scammers). They are also exploring ways to introduce counterpoints to certain articles.
While admirable, I think they are fixing the wrong problems. The problem with social media is less about fake news and more about fake friends. Despite all the data that Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter collect about me, they are still unable to figure out who matters most because they are measuring the wrong things. Filling my news feed with photos that receive a lot of likes rewards the popularity of a person in my social network but doesn’t reflect our relationship with each other. The technology doesn’t know who shows up at the hospital when I am unexpectedly sick. It doesn’t know who I call when my heart is broken. And it can’t measure the depth of a friendship forged long before the existence of social media. Buried in the midst of all the likes, retweets, and shares is a simple, uncomfortable truth – I am not friends with most people I know on social media.
Friendship should mean more than a digital connection. Friendship doesn’t require suggestion based on how many people we have in common. And what I want to know about my friends shouldn’t be subject to an algorithm that prioritizes popularity over our personal history. Just as important is the idea that not all likes are equal. If I write an op-ed and my high school English teacher likes it, that matters differently than if my grandmother likes it (sorry Grandma!).
It’s the slow corruption of friendship and the subsequent death of connection and conversation that lie at the heart of our political problems. Effective, persuasive debate requires respect, trust and context, all of which are developed and sustained over time, and quite often, in person. Instead of trying to heal our political wounds from the safety of our screens, we should reconnect with our friends in person or on the phone. Political differences exist among friends. Figuring out those differences prepares us for resolving differences among strangers. So the next time you find yourself posting your thoughts and then tracking likes, retweets, and shares, don’t forget – not everything that is measured matters, and not everything that matters can be measured.