19 March 2021

The New York Times: “How Facebook Became a Tool of the Far-Right”

Everyone has some type of thing that gave them a spark, he said in an interview last week. Facebook just so happened to be mine.

He’s not alone. Facebook’s algorithms have coaxed many people into sharing more extreme views on the platform — rewarding them with likes and shares for posts on subjects like election fraud conspiracies, Covid-19 denialism and anti-vaccination rhetoric. We reviewed the public post histories for dozens of active Facebook users in these spaces. Many, like Mr. McGee, transformed seemingly overnight. A decade ago, their online personas looked nothing like their presences today.

A journey through their feeds offers a glimpse of how Facebook rewards exaggerations and lies.

Stuart A. Thompson & Charlie Warzel

Much has been written about the role of online platforms, from Facebook and Twitter to YouTube, in radicalization and spreading lies, misinformation and conspiracy theories. It occurs to me though that there may be other social developments at work as well, namely a trend towards loneliness and social isolation. I get the sense that people who are most susceptible to radicalization have few or loose close relationships (friends, partners, family). Having fewer offline social interactions, they tend to compensate with an online presence. On top of that, whatever fringe ideas they pick up in these online interactions are left unchallenged in the real world, because they have fewer people around to question these wild notions. People in (healthy) relationships, or parents with children, should be less susceptible because, for one, they have less time to waste digging through conspiracy theories, and their partner should have the common sense to steer them back towards more sane thinking (I would hope, at least).

Dom McGee at the rally in Washington on Jan. 6
Dom McGee attended the rally in Washington on Jan. 6, meeting other members of his Win the Win Facebook group. Lexey Swall for The New York Times

I was reminded of this idea while I was listening to the podcast episode The Algebra of Wealt‪h, where the special guest, economist Noreena Hertz, talks about the rise of loneliness in our society.

Noreena Hertz, an economist, a bestselling author, and an Honorary Professor at the University College London, joins Scott to discuss the learnings from her latest book, The Lonely Century: How to Restore Human Connection in a World That’s Pulling Apart.

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