Facebook has ruined my ability to think

February 6, 2017

As has much of the world, I have watched the first weeks of Trump’s presidency with growing concern. In short succession, he has signed executive orders that threaten the environment, immigrants and refugees, healthcare for the American people, stability in relations and trade in the Pacific, and the safety of women around the world. His team openly lied to the press about the number of people who watched the inauguration, about voter fraud, about the reception of his speech at the CIA.

My newsfeed is filled with anti-Trump sentiment—as it was before the election. Beside myself, I lamented to a friend: “Where was this outrage before the election?” Her response: “The news outlets you follow might have made him look ridiculous, but Fox News treated him like a valid candidate—and their viewers agreed. Someone forgot to take the fringe element seriously and they voted.”

That set me thinking—why was my understanding of the election campaign so different from reality? Then it hit me. Facebook. Facebook is ruining my ability to think critically. And, paired with my news habits and technology-distracted brain, I’m pretty sure I’m losing my desire to know more, to object, to raise questions, and to decide for myself.

I know you might object. After all, Facebook connects me to people and ideas. It puts a world of information at my fingertips. I see news from around the globe. Last week, I interacted with friends living in Sweden. Logically, my life must be improved by all this knowledge, access, connection.

It isn’t and there’s a growing body of science that backs me up.

We live in a wired world. Earlier this year, the Pew Research Centre released the results of a study looking at news and social media platforms. It turns out that the majority of U.S. adults—62 percent—now get news – real news, about elections and insurrections and chemistry and finance—via social media. For context, that represents 44% of the US general population. While I admit this isn’t their sole source of news, it is trending in that direction. Just three years ago, less than half of Facebook users got news on the site; now, that number stands at 66% and climbing. Other social media sites are also growing as news sources: 70% of Reddit users and 59% of Twitter users get news via those sites. Most disturbing is the increase in Instagram users—19%!—who use Instagram as a source of news. Instagram?!? That’s where I post pictures of random stuff that I find funny or weird.

Again, I know you might object—we are Canadians, not Americans. We are more sophisticated in so many ways—in our attitudes, values, and (small dig) choice of leader. That may be true, but our social media usage isn’t one of those differences: In 2015, Forum Research found that 6 out of 10 Canadians use Facebook daily (it’s 6.7/10 in the US), and it’s no stretch to assume our patterns of social media use are similar to those of our southern neighbours.

Why does this matter? Our time-saving devices let us bank, shop, navigate, read, and learn from anywhere. With a phone, we can turn up our heat, call our mothers, find an address, book a yoga class … and read the news. Having all this information, connection, control at our fingertips sounds like a good thing.

In their new book, The Distracted Mind: Ancient Brains in a High-Tech World, Drs. Larry Rosen and Adam Gazzaley examine how our devices, rather than freeing us to “multitask” our way through life, are actually leaving us less productive and less engaged in our real lives. According to Rosen and Gazzaley—a psychologist and a neuroscientist—constant connection is messing with our brain chemistry, leaving us perpetually distracted, unfocused and overwhelmed.

All this distraction makes us lazy news consumers. Why read the Globe and Mail—or the New York Times, or the Walrus—if you can get links to their site via Facebook? Why read the whole publication, if you can pick and choose what appeals to you?
Does it matter? Isn’t the Times the Times whether you get it through Facebook or Morse code?

Well, issues around multitasking, decision fatigue, social comparison and veracity aside, it probably isn’t good enough to get your news predominantly from Facebook. Think about it—you curate your own feed. You connect with friends who are likely of a similar socio-economic background, with similar views, likes and thoughts. You choose the news outlets and other organizations you follow. You can ask Facebook to show you less of anything you don’t like. It’s easy to read someone’s opinion of a news story, without linking to the actual article. Plus, when you get your news primarily from Facebook, everything starts to carry the same weight. A link to a serious look at the global socio-economic impact of the US presidential race might carry the same weight as a video of hat-wearing kittens—potentially less, since you have to click to read the article, while the video auto-runs.

Over time, you are less and less exposed to opposing opinions and ideas. You begin to experience the “false-consensus effect”—everything you see reinforces what you believe. You begin to think that your opinions, values, preferences are the “norm” which leads you to perceive a non-existent consensus. When you are exposed to opposition, it’s often the over-the-top, all-or-nothing kind of thinking that polarizes, minimizing real discussion and making forward movement on an issue impossible. Polarization isn’t new, but social media platforms take news and make it interactive, personal, and unedited. People rant rather than talk, and it become easier to dismiss opposing ideas and opinions, further deepening your perception that your beliefs are everyone’s beliefs.

For me, this is the crux of the problem. What happens to our ability to think for ourselves when this trend reaches its apex, when most people get their news from social media? How do you form your own ideas, make your own decisions, and look beyond your “edges” if you aren’t exposing yourself to differing perspectives?

I’d like to offer some pithy words of wisdom, a call to action: Read! Think for yourself! Ask questions! I just don’t know if what I say can make a difference.

We live in a world where self-curated news feeds include stories of political turmoil, war and devastation alongside duck-faced selfies, sarcastic memes, and articles about the best place to get a burger. We can ask Facebook to show us less—less war, less hunger, less about the bigger world. We can focus on our favourite things: friends and yoga and new brew pubs and kitten memes. Maybe we’re just getting the news we deserve.