The recent controversy over fake news and where the responsibility to control it rests have revealed the reach and power of social media. Facebook and Google have quietly become some of the most powerful information purveyors on our planet. Digital incarnations of disruptive technologies, their proprietary programs are bringing change to us all whether or not we like it.
The full implications of consumer preference-driven news dissemination are unknown and difficult to evaluate because the basic methods have probably been adopted far beyond social media. National Public Radio (NPR) revealed a bit about how its programming mechanisms help listeners avoid information bubbles (1). However, although decisions may be reached in new ways today, editorial control of topics and content have always been an integral part of news reporting. In the final analysis a more diverse bubble is still a bubble. Whether the NPR programming strategy will entertain and retain audiences over the long term is unknown. The grand experiment on us is in progress.
The ability to discover information using search engines now empowers anyone to become informed about almost any topic with unprecedented ease. Should you consider an education obtained from the ‘University of Google’ as good as those acquired through more traditional institutions? If it was a matter of typing in some keywords and dutifully reading whatever pops up, maybe. Search engines are remarkably powerful, but query results can be biased (2). The faithful interpretation of a collected body of information requires evaluating its reliability, placing it in accurate context and recognizing its implications. In principle, civil discourse should only be improved by greater public access to information. Hopefully, persons proclaiming themselves self-educated experts have avoided the seductive trap of confirmation bias and really do have a comprehensive appreciation of the issues they discuss. Unfortunately, incompetence, ignorance and raw opportunism may swiftly turn search engines, the information age philosopher’s stone, into a device to mass produce data-based fool’s gold and rancor.
News and political events confirm social media-transmitted information now has astonishing collective utility and power. Maybe we will see this emerging force upend an act of Congress, the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act of 2008, sometimes known as GINA (3). This proactive legislation paved the way for the DNA genomic sequencing revolution to reach its potential to improve human health and wellbeing. Recognizing that genetic information might have negative implications when it comes to employment or health insurance coverage, Congress codified some protective measures into law. As genetic information is acquired by more persons, those records are attracting attention as a potential treasure trove for data miners (4). DNA information is incredibly useful, but is not always an ironclad prediction of future personal health. Combining genetic information with comprehensive personal profiles – provided on a voluntary basis and carefully anonymized – might improve abilities to accurately predict the emergence of some diseases. If research establishes predictive analytics of compiled social media data can provide such insights the benefits would be tremendous. Now, let’s go a few hypothetical steps further; what if I, a potential employer, could acquire your social media profile and predict your long term health prospects from it? Further, discovering certain things that lead me to believe you would be a costly employee, I decline to offer you a position. You could take me to court because the law of the land, GINA, prohibits using genetic data for such purposes. And I will have my lawyers argue that decision was reached using your social media profile, not DNA sequences. Could analytic extractions from social media profiles ultimately supersede DNA sequencing technology to become stand-alone predictors of the account owner’s future health? What happens if they do?
Social media provide free services and we enjoy their many benefits. Make no mistake about it, these commercial enterprises are developing cutting edge technology with deep implications. Recent concerns over fake news have drawn attention to how information is provided to social media consumers and who provides it. However, the information flow is not unidirectional. Consumer reactions – engagement with content, ‘likes’ and decisions to forward items – tell their own important story. These data about the data have enabled the selection and crafting of content so appealing it sometimes catalyzes a viral dissemination process. Taken together, user feedback customized news offerings and targeted advertisements are only the beginning of the adaptive information exchange and predictive analysis technologies to come. The outcomes from this disruptive technology will be amazing, but in one sense these world shattering new programs will learn everything they will ever know from you.
(1) Renner. 2016. NPR One: “We Are the Enemies of Filter Bubbles.” Columbia Journalism Review, 23 December 2016. http://www.cjr.org/tow_center/npr_one_enemies_of_filter_bubbles.php?utm_content=buffer4bf96&utm_medium=social&utm_source=twitter.com&utm_campaign=buffer
(2) Cadwalladr. 2016. Google, Democracy and the Truth About Internet Search. The Guardian, 4 December 2016. https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2016/dec/04/google-democracy-truth-internet-search-facebook
(3) National Human Genome Research Institute. The Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act of 2008. https://www.genome.gov/24519851/
(4) T. Kokjohn. 2016. Could Facebook Information Become More Powerful Than Genetic Profiles? http://wp.me/p84SzZ-5p