As the internet has watched the Israeli attacks on Gaza, many users have taken to their social pages to express opinions, grieve the loss of family members or rant about the injustices occurring.
To some, the conflict between Hamas and the Israeli government is very close to home, and their emotions are not to be minimized. What is terrifying is the number of people who have used this conflict to express extremist viewpoints, vastly misunderstanding the centuries worth of political and social tensions that form the context of the conflict.
The beauty of the internet is also its horror—everyone has a platform.
There is a way to critique the Israeli government’s atrocities toward Palestine without swerving face-first into anti-Semitism. Likewise, there are ways to acknowledge the historical mistreatment of Jewish people and critique the violent radicalism of Hamas without demonizing Palestinians and parroting Islamophobic rhetoric.
A nuanced situation should inspire nuanced attitudes, yet social feeds are overwhelmingly on one extreme or another. Much like Juan Ponce de León’s fabled fountain of youth, “nuance” on the internet is often sought after and rarely found. Perhaps most sickeningly, that’s kind of the point.
Social media algorithms are built to be driven by engagement. And there is nothing that increases engagement like the opportunity to argue.
The running joke is that the fastest way to find the right answer on the internet is to post the wrong one and wait for people to correct you. People are quick to respond to extreme viewpoints if only to explain why they are wrong. The algorithm doesn’t care if the content is correct or well-researched, only that the engagement is high.
Social media elevates one-sided, emotionally charged or otherwise unbalanced content, which is all the more concerning when one considers that many creators are essentially doing the work of independent journalists.
According to a 2020 article, Pew Research Center found that, at least on You-Tube, people are as likely to trust independent sources as official news outlets.
Another Pew Research Center study, from 2022, reported that about half of U.S. adults get at least some, if not most, of their news from social media sites. In other words, social media platforms are not only major sources for current events but platforms on which independent creators can report on the news, which they do
However, relying on independent sources for knowledge is not the utopic solution it seems to be.
For one, a single person cannot provide a fair and accurate view of the world. Everything from the way an event is reported on to which subjects get time in the spotlight, and importantly which don’t, are impacted by the bias of the source.
Independent reporters can do their best to find stories that are important and relevant for their audiences, but they will inevitably gravitate toward the topics that are important to them.
Additionally, these independent creators rarely have an editorial team to fact check the information they present. Professional journalists’ work typically goes through at least two rounds of edits, and mistakes still slip through the cracks. It’s hard to imagine how much gets misreported without an editorial process to fact check and vet for accuracy.
When it comes to these internet creators, it can be hard to tell the difference between well-researched, thoughtful responses to current events and speculative commentary based on what they themselves have come across on social apps.
That is not to say that news media should be trusted blindly. A healthy degree of skepticism is necessary when approaching any piece of media.
Of course there are plenty of journalists doing their best to work with integrity, but it gets harder and harder to practice fair and accurate reporting as more pressure is put on them to increase viewership. Rampant sensationalization of events and an emphasis on subjects like crime are strategies designed to keep people watching.
So perhaps we ask ourselves how to make the internet a place where one can access all sides of an issue. Social media algorithms have been shown time and time again to put users in an echo chamber of their own ideas and interests.
If people want a complete picture of an issue, they’re going to have to search it out for themselves. The reality is that most people are simply not equipped with the media literacy it takes to do that, and that’s not their fault.
It’s one thing to ask people to go out and do their own research to fully understand a topic. It is another to require that they do so in a way that overcomes their own algorithm’s bias.
It’s hard to be an informed citizen in a digital era when every source of knowledge is to be questioned rather than taken at face value, and users are almost guaranteed to be inundated with only one side of an issue.
Greater media awareness and literacy are only one part of the solution. Social media sites are going to have to find ways for their algorithms to push more nuanced and well-balanced content if any improvement is to be seen.
Whether it be about the conflict between Palestine and Israel or another major topic of discussion, there is more to the issue than just the extreme ends. Nuance is out there. The trouble is finding it.