How video and social media effects public discourse.

Photo by Jakob Owens on Unsplash

Olden day speeches were serious

While reading more of Neil Postman’s book Amusing Ourselves to Death. He talked about the power of print media in American public life. Where conversations and speeches were done in a literary tone. A great example shown was the Abe Lincoln vs Douglas debate. Which lasted for 12 hours. And it was none of the speeches we saw today. As the whole debate sounded like an essay. Even the comebacks were pre-written. Postman noted that as the language was complex. Because the speakers assumed major assumptions with the audience. Which required the understanding of the political issues at the time. A couple of the jokes or statements made by the speakers would not be understood would the knowledge of the political context. Nowadays speeches are very simplified so they can turn into clips for television. If people did a speech in the 17th-century style. People will find you boring and would not know what you’re talking about.

Can you understand a complex topic in less than 5 minutes?

With social media. I wonder how its effecting discourse right now. You have likely seen it on one of your feeds. A short video with subtitles at the bottom. Talking about whatever political topic. But while watching them you tend to notice that they omit a few details. Which may be important to the topic at hand. Within less than 3 minutes. This video is supposed to tell you how simple a complex political issue is. Only to tell you how obvious the solution is. As we can see the problem comes when the analysis is devoid of nuance. And most of the goal is to make you high on emotion.

I don’t know how much reasonable information you can pack into a 3-minute video. I guess people decide how much emotion they can pack into a video instead. Social media forces you to play more to a certain rule set. Incentivizing creators to play on people’s emotions more. Social media companies want engagement on their platform. This causes people to come back more often and stay longer. This means social media companies like emotional content. As it drives up engagement. So we have a forcing function pushing users for more emotional content. This is a far cry from the Lincoln debates. Also, video is easier to share. A person can watch the video and share it in less than 5 minutes. Compared to text, which it may take a while to read and comprehend.

Before video, you used to read the whole person’s argument. Now we only get 30-second clips of the incident. So at best we only get a surface-level understanding of the incident. At worst we come out of the situation misinformed. As we don’t have enough context to get a full understanding of the event. But after watching the video we are very confident about the situation. So we develop a strong Dunning-Kruger effect. So when talking to other people. We tend to be emotional when talking about the event. Because that’s how we got the information. And lack the context to understand the problem. So we tend to talk past each other.

The algorithms may be more powerful than the content

While I haven’t finished reading the whole book. Neil Postman’s does talk about the issue of television. And how its visual form takes priority above everything else. This can be same for social media videos. In which the visuals that entice users to click, matter more. This is why you can see insane thumbnails for videos. As they need to capture the attention of the user. Even along with the video, the person may be making emotionally charged statements. Because they still want to keep the user’s attention. And stop the user from clicking away. In TV at least you have broadcasting laws. But on the internet, social media companies give a wide birth. Which in a way is a good thing. But in other ways not so. As mass misinformation can be shared. Without much of a fact-check along the way. The emotionally charged nature of misinformation means people are willing to ignore fact-checking. And will actively discredit the correct information. As the correct information goes against their worldview.

I think most progress being done to stop misinformation on video. Is not the fact check panels on the bottom of the video. But adjustment of the algorithms themselves. For example, many of the social media companies now will slow down the distribution of the content. If it’s getting viral and the content is misinformation. This stops it from reaching a large number of people. This is done in many ways. YouTube slowed down the distribution of conspiracy theory videos by stopping them from entering the suggested content panel. This means the video will find it difficult to find new users. Outside of the person’s subscriber base.

Adjustments to the social media algorithms also force creators to evolve to the changes. For a long time controversial topics (mainly current affairs). Got demonetised on YouTube. Meaning creators couldn’t run ads on the platform. So creators either started pivoting towards more family-friendly content. Or opening up Patreon accounts so people could get funded directly from their fans. This lead to creators creating exclusive content for Patreon. As they don’t need to worry about getting demonetised or banned from YouTube.

Facebook is known to do similar things. Like slowing down distribution of serious misinformation. This was being done for coronavirus information. Social media will rather do this. Because it’s much harder to cry censorship. While people cry about shadow banning. (stopping content from getting distribution as I explained above.) It’s much harder to prove. And most of the time it’s just people’s content was not good enough for users to share it. That does not sound nice so people resort to the shadowban cope.

While Neil postman did not predict social media. I think his book is very relevant to us now. It’s not just the content affecting our discourse but the algorithms behind them as well.

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Tobi Olabode

tobiolabode.com Interested in technology, Mainly writes about Machine learning for now. @tobiolabode3