June 2021 – Dialogue and the challenge of social media

I would like to recommend the Netflix documentary “The Social Dilemma”, which helped me to understand social media and the impact it has on our world.

It was the explanation of the business model of a typical social media company that really helped me.  It is all about selling advertising!  This means social media companies want people to “Engage” more and more with their site.  The more time we spend on the site, the more adverts we will look at and the more money they can make.   But the companies are also interested in “Growth”; having more people visit the site.  More people means more looking at adverts.

Social media apps monitor and record everything we do; the content we look at, for how long and at what times of day.  This helps them to build a “Profile” of us, so they know our tastes.  Then they can select content for us to build our Engagement.  They can target us with specially chosen adverts, and this makes the advertising more valuable.  Teams of engineers work on Profiling to better predict what we will look at.  Tracking cookies tell the social media company everywhere we go online.   Huge databanks know everything about us.  Sophisticated algorithms backed by artificial intelligence work out what content and adverts to prompt us with.

Quite quickly the space we inhabit in social media becomes highly tailored to us, with content chosen to maximise our Engagement.  It can become an echo chamber continually repeating back to us our own thoughts and beliefs.  And once it becomes clear that we have a particular fear or anxiety, the algorithms will find ever more content to reinforce that because they know it builds our Engagement.  The algorithms do not care whether the content is true or false.  In fact, they often favour fake news because they know it will “push our buttons”.  We find ourselves in our own little world, which can easily get detached from reality.  This can lead to terrible polarisation in politics because everything I see online supports my own political opinions and my capacity to engage with different opinions diminishes.  This is a real threat to democracy.

What can we do?  Well, we should certainly encourage governments to regulate in ways that marginalise fake news and promote truth and dialogue.  As individuals we can turn off notifications, so it is us choosing what we look at, not an algorithm.   We can limit the time we spend on social media.  We can make sure that the news we receive is universal, not chosen specifically for us.  We can make sure we engage with opinions we disagree with so that we learn the art of dialogue.

With prayers and best wishes, Fr Patrick


Prayer about Dialogue

Heavenly Father, your Son, Jesus Christ engaged

with tax collectors and sinners,

with Jews and Greeks,

with Samaritans and Roman soldiers,

with rich and poor

with Pharisees and fishermen

with lepers, the blind and lame.

Help us to engage with different kinds of people.

Help us to care for people who are different from us.

Help us to appreciate different points of view,

so that truth and justice may thrive.

In the name of Jesus we pray.  Amen.


June 2021 – Dialogue and the challenge of social media