On Advertisements and Political Tribalism

The following is entirely personal opinion and conjecture.

Over the past few years, I’ve looked on as a passive observer whilst the internet has slowly expanded to cover people from all walks of life - billions around the globe connected via a communication system that allows people to communicate near-instantly no matter where they are located physically.

This unprecedented expansion of the ability to share information should, to an idealist, allow for a global market of ideas, 7 billion people all able to contribute in their own way to discourse online. For a time, it appeared that this was exactly what was happening. Social media became massive in the late 2000’s, connecting people in one centralised place.

However, I believe that sites like Facebook and Twitter gained popularity and made choices that seem to be leading to the radicalisation and segregation of people, instead of the idealist’s vision. Why is this the case? I believe that the very method these central systems fund themselves with, inevitably lead to this conclusion, no matter how honourable the intentions of its creators.

Let’s say that you are an entrepreneur in the mid 2000’s with the very same idealistic vision set out above, the desire to connect people - you create a system that allows for people to communicate and allow people to use it free of charge.

People flock to your new platform, and soon you have a thriving community. Unfortunately servers are not free, and you need to pay the rent somehow. You approach a few corporations and tell them that they can get ever-sought-over advertisement views by placing adverts on your platform. They agree, and your financial problems are solved for the time being. Over the years, your userbase increases in size and you need ever greater server capacity to handle it - and for this you need more people viewing, and more importantly clicking, the advertisements on your service. You turn to data analysis - surely if we analyse the user’s posts, we can pick out keywords and advertise based on that! If the user posts about cars, we advertise cars to them - they’re more likely to click. Perfect!

Once this is no longer enough, it makes sense to relate users to other users - if someone that likes cars follows someone that likes sports cars, well, we can advertise both to them! A logical continuation of this would be to recommend a few, different users for Mr User to follow. Think of it like a 20Questions sort of thing - if we first show them 2 users, one likes Vans and one likes Cars, and they follow the second person, we could then show them 2 further users, one that likes red cars and one that likes blue cars. The user follows the first one. So now we have even more information than before, and we can advertise to them really effectively with red cars! Financial problems solved!

Unfortunately through solving your financial problems, you’ve slowly brought together a group of people that are like-minded and that are less likely to see anyone outside of this new “bubble” - people only get to this group through following a set of ever more specific people, and they’re prone to become an echo chamber. Everyone here only likes red cars, right? Blue cars are stupid, Vans are doubly stupid and anyone that likes them is blind to the beauty of cars.

A set of like minded people is good to a point, but if an echo chamber does indeed form, and the group becomes politicised in any way, the same logic that brought them together can radicalise them. If no opposing opinions are heard, your one must clearly be the uncontested truth and anyone that thinks otherwise is uninformed. I believe this can best be seen on places like Reddit, where 2 subreddits (say, /r/Politics and /r/The_Donald) can have totally opposing views of the uncontested truth, and anyone that disagrees is either a Shareblue shill or racist Trumpette.

Vans are doubly stupid and anyone that thinks otherwise is a Van Supremacist.

I can’t say I know any solution to this problem, it’s a logical conclusion to a model based on advert revenue. Maybe it’s time to think of alternative funding methods - would this occur on a network with a subscription fee?

Hannah Ward

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