“How could Nixon have won? Nobody I know voted for him.”
That’s what Pauline Kael, a film critic for The New Yorker, supposedly said after the 1972 election. Nixon had just won a landslide reelection, carrying 49 of 50 states, so Kael’s line became a symbol for the “out-of-touch liberals,” who looked down their noses on the “Silent Majority.”
This year, we might all be Pauline Kael looking back after Election Day: “How could he have won? Nobody I know liked him on Facebook!”
That’s because we’re more connected than ever these days — plugged in but out of touch.
It’s a technological problem as much as a personal one. On social media, the first step you take is choosing your friends or your follower list. And the second step — repeated every time afterward — is how you react to every piece of content presented to you.
The algorithms are tracking every one of those micro-judgments, and how they use that knowledge has a very real impact on our world.
That’s because social media’s algorithms don’t prioritize discourse or the public good or the future of the country. They prioritize engagement, maximizing the time you spend on the app or website to maximize their ad revenue.
And they’ve gotten good at it. In 2018, a Harvard study explored how social media platforms use “the very same neural circuitry used by slot machines and cocaine,” the brain’s dopamine “reward pathways,” “to keep us using their products as much as possible.”
We’re going to have a front-row view to the effects of this during the upcoming Supreme Court fight.
Individual Facebook users aren’t just served news based on their personal preference, but what’s popular sitewide. And partisan content, not unbiased news, rules on Facebook.
This past August, the top two publishers on Facebook (measured by engagement) were 1) DailyWire.net, a conservative outlet founded by Ben Shapiro, and 2) FoxNews.com. Four of the top eight publishers on Facebook were right-wing partisan sources. On the left, HuffPost.com came in 12th and MSNBC.com in 18th.
Our partisan bubbles shape more of our lives than just our news: A study on the website Dating.com found that 84% of singles say they’re not interested in matching with someone with opposing political views. Dating apps OkCupid, Hinge and Bumble have filters that screen out different political beliefs.
The visibility of “out of the bubble” news keeps shrinking, too. In 2019, the Pew Research Center found that social media is the primary source for information about politics for more Americans adults than cable TV, local TV, radio and print.
The problem is, social media is notoriously bad at nuance and context. According to Facebook, the average amount of time a user spends on any single post before scrolling to the next is between 1.7 seconds and 2.5 seconds, the equivalent of about five to 10 words.
Not surprisingly, Pew found that those who rely on social media for their political news are less engaged and less knowledgeable than their peers.
Now, unreliable information didn’t start with social media. Remember that Pauline Kael quote from 1972?
It was a famous misinterpretation of a speech where Kael was making light of her insularity, far from shocked by it.
Still, no matter whether you read every word in the newspaper or five to 10 words on Facebook, your vote still counts the exact same.
So it’s up to each of us how informed we truly want to be, and how surprised we are on Nov. 4.
Dio Tararrel is a political writer, researcher and editor who lives in Salt Lake City.