If you are reading this online right now, the machines have done their job.
The algorithms served you this piece because you probably already know and believe in the ideas I'm about to put forth. This story bounced into your feed because what I am about to say might not be dramatically new to you. But it will likely reinforce that you are an intelligent person, whose ideas are well-thought-out and compatible with society. Or, more precisely, with the society you wish we were.
Because that's the world we live in these days. We know what we know and we only reluctantly venture into the world of the unknown. We (and the machines) have identified who we are and we feel pretty good about it. Why change?
Sure, every once in a while, we'll peek under the curtain to see what others are doing or saying but that's only to find fodder to ridicule those who disagree with us.
The reality is that we are not much of a society today. We are a nation of individuals.
There is a cable network for every interest, a website for every topic, a news organization for every political party, a social media feed for any ideology, and message boards for everyone else. It's easy to stay in your lane, even without the machines dictating what we see on Twitter, Facebook, or Google.
How do you combat that hyper-fragmentation? How are we supposed to teach people to care about the world when most people only care about their worlds?
For the past decade, I taught a class at Temple University called Journalism & Society. I always asked the students to raise their hands if they trusted what they learned from the internet. Every year, fewer and fewer hands went up.
We discussed situations, like the guy who drove to a Washington D.C. pizza shop with a knife, AR-15 rifle, and a revolver because he read online that the Democrats were holding child sex slave parties in the basement. Everyone laughed about that. It was too ridiculous.
Yet earlier that year, I saw that multiple students had retweeted or posted on Facebook a meme that said we could end poverty by dividing the $1.3 billion Powerball prize by the 300 million Americans. Every person would get $4.3 million each, the meme read.
When I asked them about it, the students seemed confused about my point. The laws of math would have everyone taking home $4.33, not $4.3 million, I explained.
The lesson for those students – and for all people — is that we need to be critical consumers of information. In an age when there is a meme for every occasion, we can't blindly believe everything we find, whether it feeds into our belief system or not. It's sad, and deciphering what is a trustworthy source of information is not always easy.
The onus these days is on the audience to go beyond that meme, that random video, or that single story. Here's how you can do it:
Look at the other content presented by that source. If it's nothing but conspiracy theories, be skeptical.
Do a Google search to see if more traditional news organizations covered the stories with similar information. Verify everything.
Don't ignore the site's advertising. If there are ads from known brands and retailers, it's likely real. Actual businesses would not advertise on websites that could damage their reputation. If a site only has ads for DVDs espousing conspiracy theories or for health products branded by the organization, run away.
Know the difference between facts and assertions. The critical consumer will recognize whether a story presents facts or simply makes assertions. Even that can be difficult, as facts are malleable and everyone has learned to buttress their beliefs in data.
Follow the data. Go to the original source and see if the data is reliable. Who did the research and who funded it?
It's annoying and time consuming but the trolls, propagandists, and Russian bots are so good at manipulating us that we have to be ultra-careful.
Legitimate news organizations need to do their part as well. We need to be as precise as possible and present information without interpretation. We need to label stories as news, analysis, or opinion so that the audience knows what exactly it is absorbing. And when we provide opinion, we need to be absolutely transparent about our backgrounds, beliefs, and agenda. We need to build back trust.
The great American experiment only works if we appreciate our differences and learn to live amongst each other. Communication is key.
We can't let the machines win.