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Tracked online

09 December 2016

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THE internet can be a sinister place. That much we knew even before the post-Truth era descended like a pea-souper on our consciousness. But listening to Bursting the Social Network Bubble (Radio 4, Tuesday of last week) I was reminded of one of the better Father-of-the-bride gags I have heard: the speaker was praising his daughter’s intuitive ability to read people, and match them up into appropriate and complementary groups — witness the seating plan for this wedding. So, if you are thinking “Why have I been put on this table with a lot of old bores?” then you might like to reflect on your own personality.

Social networks reflect our own expressed interests; this is one of the great lessons of 2016, as people continue to ask: “How could anybody have voted for Brexit/Trump?” The astonishment comes because nobody that we meet in our everyday lives appears to hold different views to ours; and on Facebook there seem to be only posts that reinforce our views.

But that, as the presenter Bobby Friction explained, is all down to those dastardly algorithms: filters that assess what we might like, ideologically as well as materially, and serve it up to us in dollops.

As you follow links to this article or that advertisement, so the algorithm becomes more sophisticated. So, presumably, I can look forward to a time when the only stories I get on Facebook are about sacred music composed between 1440 and 1480 — and that might, in fact, be an improvement on the current tiringly predictable string of stories telling me that Brexit is the devil’s own work, and how learning to play a musical instrument has been proven to cure the common cold.

None of this is good for us, as the philosopher Julian Baggini explained, because we become unused to exercising our critical faculties.

There is a simple way out: not to use Facebook or Twitter. But that is apparently not an option for Mr Friction; so this entertaining and alarming programme instead came up with methods of escaping the bubble of self-reinforcing news that social media serves up. These include altering something in your Facebook settings; and, far more entertaining, including the word “Congratulations” in your posts. Facebook is thus tricked, and will put your post high up in other people’s news feeds.

The evangelising potential of such a simple technique is surely considerable: with the inclusion of a few choice phrases, you could breach the most atheist of algorithms and scatter seeds of Good News among the stories of Trump and all his enormities.

For all this, I do not have a great deal of sympathy for Hugo Rifkind, who appeared on The Media Show (Radio 4, Wednesday of last week) as an act of contrition for an ill-advised tweet he sent last week. It was all about Donald Trump’s daughter, who was said to have said something that she did not say.

Mr Rifkind says that his tweet represented what one might call “meta-news”: not a fact as such, but a comment on whether a story is being told as if it were fact. But Mr Rifkind knows all too well that the scare-quotes gesture you make with your fingers does not translate to the Twitter-sphere. Social media does, indeed, reflect back our true selves; and makes fools of every one of us.

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