Sensemaking in 2020

I began writing and talking about the impact that social media and algorithm-based platforms are having on us as individuals and as a society back in 2016. At that time, I had people responding that I was an alarmist. One person called me “an old man yelling at clouds,” which I found particularly funny. Some were quick to defend Facebook and its competitors as liberators of information. Since then, there have been countless scandals exposing Facebook’s (who owns Instagram and WhatsApp) lack of ethics when it came to people’s wellbeing, privacy, and rights. 

While the attention economy was started by folks who were clearly greed-based and not all that ethical about what they were doing, I don’t think they intended to create or could have predicted the situation we’re in today. We’re in a time when any sense of truth or fact is increasingly hard to parse from the noise. Sensemaking and constructive dialogue have become increasingly challenging, and people are more polarized than at any time in history. 

The first six months of 2020 have been intense for everyone. The political climate, the virus, the protests, and the sense of the entire world being upside down is a lot to digest and process. It’s hard to know how to function when you’re caught in the tornado of information, opinion, and emotion on the internet. 

I couldn’t have predicted these events when I wrote it, but I think, now more than ever, the Nature of Work Foundations Program is particularly relevant. While there is some need to stay informed and connected, we need to be careful that we’re not spending all our time consuming the fear-based rhetoric propagated and amplified by social platforms and news networks. We also need to be careful about what we accept as “truth” and “fact” and make sure that we remain open-minded, compassionate, and rational as we face these massive social issues and transformational times. Perhaps most importantly, we need to remember that our social feeds do no represent the totality of what’s happening or what everyone thinks and believes. We are in echo chambers created to keep us engaged so these platforms can sell our attention to advertisers. 

In the past few years, there has been an increasing amount of namecalling, shaming, blaming, and assumptions being made on the internet. Yet, there has never been a more important moment in history to slow down and take the time to educate ourselves on the issues we’re facing before rushing to conclusions. To be cautious about the psychological and emotional traps that social media and the algorithms create and watch out for them.

It may seem like you’re informed on an issue, but unless you are taking intentional steps to diversify the information you’re finding, you’re likely seeing a one-sided or skewed version of the story. That doesn’t mean it’s wrong, it just means it’s incomplete. This challenge is amplified by the fact many of these platforms have their own agendas, perspectives, and biases that further skew the content you see. This is how dangerous group-thinking and polarization happens. 

If you read/watch a news article, a book, or an opinion piece you find compelling and perhaps immediately sense feels “true” or “factual”, I recommend taking these steps before deciding that you have a strong position on the issue:

  1. Look up an studies referenced, and review the actual data source. This can be tricky since journalists and authors are now prone to quoting one another as factual sources so you often have to follow a maze of references to get back to a source (often there isn’t one in the first place).
  2. If you do find a study, look at who did it, which institution is associated with it, and google the name of the study and add words like
    “controversy” or “response” to see if there is any dissent or disagreement amongst other researchers about the work.
  3. Find an equally credible piece of content that matches the format of the piece you started with (so an article for an article, a book for a book) and read/watch it. See if you can clearly decipher the two arguments, and whether you know enough about the subject to take a firm stance about who is right or wrong (and remember it’s rarely binary).

Sounds like a lot of work right? Understanding any issues that affect a great number of people usually is. These are complex issues, that have often arisen over hundreds or thousands of years of human civilization. To think you can form a clear stance from a few Instagram posts or a 10-minute Vice video is simply impossible.

If we want to move forward as a human race, we need to practice listening, absorbing information judiciously and intentionally, challenging our assumptions, being compassionate and caring for one another, and moving slowly when taking positions on complex issues. The internet offers us unparalleled access to information and connectivity to one another. But until we can find a new way to access information that isn’t through corporate-owned algorithmic platforms, we need to be extremely careful about how we process the information we come accross.

With great power comes great responsibility. 

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