This past Tuesday, techno-sociologist Zeynep Tufekci published a widely-read piece in the New York Times excoriating Facebook for its role in Donald Trump’s victory. Her argument was simple: Facebook is creating echo chambers, by allowing people to exclusively share and consume articles that appeal to their personal ideological bent. Her claim is buttressed by the fact that 44 percent of Americans receive their news through social media, according to a Pew study earlier this year. Unfortunately, much of this “news” is factually incorrect.
Does Facebook have any obligation to curate its content? Pundits certainly think so. Mark Zuckerberg has come under fire for his role in supposedly “damaging democracy,” and there have been calls for Facebook to systematically weed out fake articles from users’ news feeds. Such a move would undoubtedly have an impact. Facebook has been able to increase voter turnout, affect a user’s mood and even identify the political affiliations of millions of people — all with just a few lines of code. While demanding greater accountability from Facebook would lead to some improvements, it’s not enough to address the pitfalls of a “post-truth” world. The fact that this discussion is being had at all reveals a more sobering reality: that tech titans are now the ultimate arbiters of truth. We are beginning to lose the ability to reason for ourselves.
The word “research” has become almost synonymous with “Google.” I can’t tell you when the last time I opened an encyclopedia was, and I know almost nothing about how to navigate the Dewey Decimal System. And why would I? Not only can I find raw data using Google, I can also find helpful explanations and commentary. Who needs to read books for English classes when a two-second Google search yields Sparknotes summaries that provide all the analysis that an English TF would ever want during section?
In fact, the rise of social media and Google have paved the way for the greatest time-saver of them all: the listicle. You’ve undoubtedly run into one: “The 7 things you NEED to know about Honey Badgers” or “5 Reasons the Affordable Care Act is the Bee’s Knees.” Vox.com has become famous for its listicles about major Congressional bills and other complex topics. Honestly, they’re pretty handy — especially for those arguments around the dinner table when you’re looking for conversational fodder.
Far too often, the internet serves as a substitute — not a supplement — for critical reasoning of our own. The same people who lambast Trump supporters for getting news from Breitbart News and its ilk are the ones who consider themselves cultured for parroting the latest analysis from Nate Silver of FiveThirtyEight.com. If you have the time, step into any political conversation on campus and count the number of people who pass off an opinion from the listicle/op-ed du jour. When was the last time you heard an original piece of analysis from your friends?
In fact, what usually matters is the source of the analysis — not the analysis itself. As Nathan Robinson of Current Affairs magazine puts it, there’s a very ingrained sense of what he calls “pundit tenure.” So long as the source of the information is legitimate, everything is fine. The reputation of the source is all that matters in the age of Google.
If you’ve ever wondered how America got so polarized, look no further. Consider Yale students: After years of using a heuristic for analyzing news that basically amounts to “Fox News didn’t say it,” is it any wonder that conservatives on campus feel attacked? The problem isn’t that Yalies hate all conservative ideas. It’s that Yalies just downright ignore them — and the rest of the country is no different. All Google and Facebook are doing is perpetuating this system of filtration. As they increasingly cater to our penchant for brevity and ideological conformity, our search results will become more and more different from one another’s. I fear living in a world in which what is true is what Google returns first.
Shreyas Tirumala is a junior in Trumbull College. His column runs on alternate Fridays. Contact him at email@example.com .