What’s with social media these days?

It seems not so long ago that we were all discussing the way social media captures our personal data and uses it, and the way it grabs our attention and keeps us constantly distracted. The recent years have been filled with many good books that examined these issues. The Age of Surveillance Capitalism and How to do Nothing are two that readily come to mind.

But 2020 has altered our calculus about these matters. Online interactions through social media have been a godsend during lockdowns; and one doesn’t hear noise anymore about all the data these companies are gathering. Instead, the spotlight is back where it was four years ago: on the potential of social media platforms to help launch disinformation campaigns to disrupt elections, heighten polarisation, and spread conspiracies. Here’s the NewYorker, writing about about social media’s disinformation problem:

In the run-up to this year’s Presidential election, e-mails and videos that most analysts attributed to the Iranian government were sent to voters in Arizona, Florida, and Alaska, purporting to be from the Proud Boys, a neo-Fascist, pro-Trump organization: “Vote for Trump,” they warned, “or we will come after you.” Calls to voters in swing states warned them against voting and text messages pushed a fake video about Joe Biden supporting sex changes for second graders. But a truly ambitious disinformation attack would be cleverly timed and coördinated across multiple platforms. If what appeared to be a governor’s Twitter account reported that thousands of ballots had gone missing on Election Day, and the same message were echoed by multiple Facebook posts—some written by fake users or media outlets, others by real users who had been deceived—many people might assume the story to be true and forward it on. The goal of false information need not be an actual change in events; chaos is often the goal, and sowing doubt about election results is a perfect way to achieve it.

Compared with this problem, the matter of social media influencing our attention seems trivial now. That’s quite a turnaround from the previous years, and it makes me wonder if things we deem important are entirely a function of the dominant media narratives of the times we live in. Covid-19 has grabbed our attention away from other healthcare matters, and the U.S. election (and what it means to democracy) seems to take precedence over things happening elsewhere in the world.

Will history restore objectivity?