The past 10 years have given us an insane number of online social platforms.
Few of them survived the test of time and there are still a few coming up.
Put together, these platforms have close to 15% of the current human population on them. There has never been a time where there existed so many mediums of reaching so much of the world.
These mediums are accessible to anyone and everyone, they say they’re completely free too.
Let me try to explain what I mean by the word Propaganda in the title.
I believe there are three types of propaganda,
- Personal Propaganda
This is the type where one person broadcasts their opinions to a personal audience using a medium. This is still propaganda, just not the traditional type.
- Public Propaganda
This is the type where one or many people broadcast their opinion to a public audience using a medium. This should be relatable, considering how often this happens.
- Propaganda of the Medium
This is one where the medium itself either, has or develops, a bias.
It then uses its broadcasters to propagate its bias to their audiences.
Now, for a bit of a history lesson.
Around a century ago, newspapers were the dominant medium of propagating information. These newspapers usually confined themselves to particular geographies or domains. These led to several newspapers getting published. Their main source of revenues were ads.
Newspapers were social platforms where normal people could write too based on approval. Move forward a little in time, and radio came along.
Radio didn’t compete with newspapers. Radio also opened up opportunities for a larger variety of broadcasts. For which I’m sure we are all grateful. Normal people could come on Radio too, with an invitation.
Television came after that and took over in more ways than one from Radio. It added another dimension to Radio and became the new medium for information propagation.
Through this all, newspapers remained more or less untouched.
The internet and the world wide web changed all that. Everything on the web is linkable. Everything on the internet is addressable.
Online news publishers turned up and took over from the offline ones. They were the new mediums of information propagation. Normal people could write on these platforms too, based on invitation.
Then online radio and video happened.
Platforms sprung up which allowed anyone to post content of all types, with no approval at all. This led to the creation of systems which moderated based on user feedback. What this means is, beyond a basic filtering if that, there is no censorship on what gets posted by a user.
What platforms like these finally allowed was, for anyone to post anything online. The moderation happened afterwards.
This is something that the traditional news sources seem to be adapting to now. Post an article and let the public edit it by commenting on it. Outsourcing a part of the work.
There was a crazy amount of content because everyone could post. The problem of what to show and in what order came about. This isn’t about the interface.
To give you an example,
Let’s say 100 people posted 100 different things. You go to the platform, what do you see first? What do you see second?
In the initial days, the users decided what order they wanted it in, by date, in alphabetical order, etc.
Then, search happened, where a lot of this organization happened. The largest of these companies has a mission statement that says it aims to :
Organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and usefulIn parallel, the platforms talked about in the initial part of this post turned up.
These platforms allowed you to not only post anything you want, but also, let you decide the audience for it. All the while they had to solve the organization problem too. They had to figure out what to show you first, second, etc.
Personalization ‘solved’ this.
You saw what you did in that order on the platform because of who you were and what you’d done on the platform. Sometimes, outside the platform too. These platforms started creating systems that ‘learnt you’ and decided what to show you.
But, wait, isn’t all the stuff on the platform created by people just like you?
So, these platforms decided not only what to show you, but also, who to show to you.
Most of the content on such platforms tend to be opinions rather than facts. By default subjective rather than objective. The moderation is also subjective, because it’s outsourced to the users themselves. The collective wisdom of these users enables moderation. All the while, these platforms learnt you.
In early 2011, people realized that these platforms had created virtual bubbles for them. These bubbles defined you, what you saw and in what order you saw them.
These bubbles decided a lot of things for you on the platform.
The aim of most of these social platforms is to make you create a lot more content and to keep you coming back. You create the content, you create the value.
Most of these social platforms are run by ads in one form or another. These ads target people based on the bubble that the advertiser defines.
To sum up what has been illustrated above before we move on :
- Online newspapers exist.
- Platforms for user generated content of all types exist.
- Search platforms exist.
- Social networking platforms exist.
- Personalization is prevalent.
- You live in an online bubble. The content from 1 and 2 is shown to users on 3 and 4 based on 5 and 6.
Much like newspapers in the past, 1 and 2 have ‘geographies’ who they can showcase their content to. Except, this time, its in the virtual world. They’re also at the mercy of algorithms which define their audiences.
As illustrated above, a lot of the decision making is based on the subject. Also based on the subject, is the revenue model for these platforms. As a result of this, putting people in bubbles is of utmost importance.
Right now, we’re at the cusp of true AI systems which can take over the moderation systems. These systems will act based on what they learn. These systems learn what is right, wrong based on what the users of the platform say and do.
A lot of the moderation and the behaviour of these systems is going to be democratic. It doesn’t mean it’ll be neutral.
As mentioned in the beginning, these platforms play host to 15% of the human population. They’re the best platforms for you to showcase your content.
Advertisers can pay their way to reaching more and more people. But, if people don’t like what they say, people can remove you ….. from their bubbles. Users may never see content from outside their bubbles. Both the advertiser and the user are at the mercy of these platforms which decide who sees what.
Recently, some voices said that the online newspapers that they agree with don’t get visibility on these platforms. They blamed it on censorship by the platforms.
I disagree. I blame it on democracy.
In general, we consider these platforms to be without biases. But, we form the biases that these platforms are built on top of. Platforms these days have developed multiple biases which they propagate.
These platforms will provide direct access to the majority of human population very soon. They will have a heavy effect on what people see, think, agree with etc.
What we see and how we see them is based on the bubble we live in on these platforms. I’m worried if we will ever be able to break out of them.
I don’t think the existence of multiple biases is a sign of the existence of the free market of ideas. The marketplace of ideas is important and in an ideal world, would be of primal importance within these platforms. I don’t think we have that yet, but, I hope we will.
If AI is going to take over a lot of human actions in these platforms, which I believe it will, maybe we need something quite different. Otherwise, nothings changed. It’s still subjective. It’s just collective subjectivity. Sounds a bit like censorship to me.
If we don’t, my guess is we’ll end up with a scenario quite like newspapers again. Much like now, where people cater to only specific audiences, only this time, it won’t be based on just geography.
The point of this all is to begin a conversation on how to make this better for all parties involved and how to change the focus from more creation of content and subjective moderation towards freer platforms without these bubbles.
I’ll leave you with two quotes.
Winston Churchill :
Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others.Milton Friedman :
A society that puts equality before freedom will get neither. A society that puts freedom before equality will get a high degree of both.