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Information Cascade Before The Internet

A powerful feature of Facebook, Twitter, Google, Reddit, and other social media sites is the user’s ability to have a feed tailored to their interests and their beliefs. In theory, this uniquely built experience allows a user to see more that interests them and to be exposed to things similar to their network. People follow the interests of those in their networks and grow their own likes, dislikes, and connections through this cascade of information. Thus, how these sits construct these networks plays a profound role in what users see and in which directions they grow. There are arguments to be made for giving users full agency to construct their social spaces and for giving the companies more authority over how these networks grow, but mostly the article reports on the transparency and regulations that need to exist in an age where information cascade can be so easily abused to spread misinformation and divide a population.

Where I think this conversation becomes really interesting is in the analysis of the role these sites play on the growth of these networks. One could argue that social media has allowed people to gain access to views well outside their normal circles. In fact, before the internet and mass communication, people would be more restricted to the views they grew up with, around, or, more generally, live with. Living in a small town in upstate New York would effectively cut someone off from what people in a small town in Oregon believed. Misinformation could still spread, but networks were more close-knit and less wide-spread. With social media, networks are now significantly more wide-spread and, in some cases, less densely localized. The way these companies treat the networks though, the effect is nearly identical. Looking at the “blue feed red feed” project mentioned in the article, people in one network very rarely get exposed to news aimed at the other network.

My point here is to ask how much of the blame for this recent trend in divisive fake news can be shouldered by the social media companies by which it disseminates. Yes, information is easier to spread far and wide today than it was before the internet. Yes, with oversight and social responsibility these companies could more handily regulate and respond to fake news before it spreads. Yes, tailoring user experience to only benefit their personal believes and interests does lead to a more cut-off experience from a wealth of information. But human nature, at least in masses, has frequently been to seek out the comfortable and the familiar. Ultimately, these companies have aggravated the problem by providing an easier path for false information to cascade through a susceptible network. They should be held responsible as a line of defense to fight this spread. However, to say that they alone, and not the users of their services, are responsible for our current information climate ignores a major facet of why information cascade is so powerful and so manipulable: people see what they want to see and believe what they want to believe.


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