You surely have heard the phrase “divide and conquer” (or “divide and rule”) before. Divide and conquer comes from the latin words “divide et impera” attributed to Philip II of Macedon but famously used by Julius Caesar, who used them to describe his war strategies. Julius Caesar was in fact a master in dividing and ruling and, despite how much good his conquests brought is questionable, the ultimate goal was to unite all single states into one cohesive Republic.
The same words today are also used to describe a general problem solving strategy. In many disciplines in computer science this works as a coarse solution for all those problems that can be defined as separable, or, in other words, can be split into subproblems whose solution can be later assembled into one that solves the bigger, undivided problem.
But let’s look at today’s news:
- Facebook had evidence its algorithms were dividing people, but top executives killed or weakened proposed solutions (reddit)
- Facebook reportedly had evidence that its algorithms were dividing people, but top executives killed or weakened proposed solutions (Businessinsider)
- Facebook Executives Shut Down Efforts to Make the Site Less Divisive (Wall Street Journal)
Today’s strategy in social media doesn’t seem to be “divide and conquer” anymore but rather conquer and divide.
Gather a massive user base to later divide them and put one side against each other. This on every possible topic that can be polarized: race, gender, wages, social care, abortion, Brexit, lagalise marjuana, immigration, firearms ownership, Shakira’s bum, Justin Bieber’s car and so on, and on and on.
Whilst we all have our opinions we all seem to agree on the fact that people have never been more divided (the article is ciscumscribed to America but can certainly speak for the rest of the world).
People though don’t seem to be much aware about why they are so divided.
Division is tension and tension is what pays off because people, especially when outraged, spend more time talking, replying and doing what’s in their power to make their opinions prevail. Even more so if there’s a strong, identifiable counter part, an antagonist, a foe, and even more so if the participant knows that there’s a strong ally, a positive pole, the “good side” from his/her point of view. The more the two factions fight over a topic the more the platform of choice can show them ads and as long as they stay on such platform, their opinions can be driven towards what is more convenient for the platform’s profit.
Today’s social networking firms bring people together with a good facade of positive intent (conquer) to later adjust, progressively optimising profit, unavoidably converging to divisive manipulations (divide).
Algorithms implement strategies, so what is the strategy today? Is it “maximize people’s love for each other”? Is it “make people more erudite”? Is it “promote articles that make people think”? Or is it more like “maximise the time people spend on the platform” and “maximise profit”?
Given that it IS more than reasonable to optimize profits, we should probably ask where does this stop, where is the line of decency and how far companies have stepped over it.
Evident manifestations of these strategies in the past were certainly games; at the very beginning Facebook’s offered value was, even more simply, re-connect with people that were part of your past: lost class mates were typically the first exciting finds. But years and years of engineering perfected a machine whose goal parted ways from users intents for a long, long time and quickly and silently became to gather and sell users’ data, amplify polarising topics to a flaming point by driving opinions to one of two poles, lock the users in using psychological tricks (see Facebook apologises for psychological experiments on users and How Facebook Stole Your Psychological Profile)
We have seen it with election campaign scandals, we keep seeing it on every single topic.
It’s now in the open. About all social media platforms were found to be carriers of such strategies and yet most of us just don’t mind and keep going about debating and spending hours scrolling down, being hooked to these time grinders, turning from users to ‘useds’.
On a personal note, I do use social networks and fell, admittedly, many times into the grinder and I am not exempt from having spat rants around. Nonetheless, with experience, as the firms algorithms evolved to eat my time and data, I refined my own avoidance strategies. I learnt that if I feel enraged about something it’s likely better if I scroll past and get on with the good things I’m doing in life. Surely I want to know what goes on in the world but I don’t want anymore to even try to depolarize someone or enforce an opinion of one side of an opinion war. I can still have friendly discussions about the same topic and I am aware that the media does not encourage this in any way.
In my opinion those who do participate often in online debates should consider that the person they are enraged against online is more likely than they think to be a good friend of theirs in real life. And, let’s not be naive, by contrast, the person they think to be a good ally may be a despicable bully in real life. The polarized version they know through the lens of media isn’t the full reality and we all seem to have lost this vision.
Ultimately we all should spend less time online and live more with what happens around us. Online presence isn’t present.