Freedom and social media: an interview with Alexandre Gonçalves
Alexandre Gonçalves has been studying the intersection between communication, journalism and social media for almost one decade now. He is a PhD student in Communication at Columbia University, where he is currently investigating the role of social media in the rise of populist governments, as well as developing new computational techniques and digital methods for the analysis of communicational data. Alexandre did his masters on Comparative Media Studies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and has worked in numerous media outlets and software companies. With the foundation of numerous years of research and study of the social media setting, Mr. Gonçalves has a deep understanding of not only the media devices but also their users, that is, the society that have experienced-and continue to experience-the technological revolution of the 21st century. Since he has been shaping his academic research in harmony with the latest technological developments in communication, Mr. Gonçalves is the perfect individual to provide new insights into the controversy surrounding the brevity of social media, and how it affects the individual freedom of the user and the cultural stands of society. In the interview, he is able to transcend the topic of social media and communicate an interesting anthropological lens with which to look at freedom as a whole and its relationship with knowledge. Finally, Mr. Gonçalves also comments on how the new communication technologies have affected-and perhaps are still affecting-the democratic institutions of society.
- During your studies and research at MIT and other institutions it seems that you have been focusing on the topic of social media for a couple years already. In what ways would you say that the landscape of social media has changed during this last decade?
The main change is that people lost their innocence. Ten years ago there was much more optimism about the possibilities of social media: that several voices that were being silent would find a place in the public square. And what we have seen in the past ten years is how these technologies can empower those who already have dominant forces, or how the systems can be used to control and attract people, and how they can reinforce prejudices and foster polarization. It makes us look at Silicon Valley with much more critical eyes. They are monopolies that can be pretty brutal and, in many ways, they are right now the most powerful lobby in Washington. And they play hardball. So, I think we are not as optimistic or as naïve when we look at them. Now we can talk in a more meaningful way about regulating them. This is their biggest fear: breaking them down into smaller companies, because they are monopolies-Amazon, Microsoft, Google, Facebook.... They have their silos with very little competition. So now we start thinking about how to protect democratic institutions and protect the social fabric from these companies.
- Given the well-known dangers of social media, from addiction to ideological manipulation, in education and politics people often talk about a "responsible use" of social media. What do you think that would look like, exactly?
From the perspective of the people who use social media, they should use it as little as possible. It is not by coincidence or accident that they try to foster addiction and tend to be used for ideological manipulation. They were designed with the goal of trying to maximize the time that people spend in the platform. And at the same time, many social actors have an incentive of weaponizing those systems for ideological manipulation. That is going to happen. So from the point of view of the users there is a real chance that you are not going to use the system, but that you are going to be used by the system. So, try to use it as little as possible. A responsible use, in this case from the user perspective, means being able to use it in a very intentional way: I need to say this thing to this person or to this group of people, and I need to read these feeds. That's it. I am not going to be just floating in the social networks.
- These past years there has been a rising controversy regarding the banning of some tweets. What do you think is the role of the government and/or the social media services in the regulation of these networks?
There should exist regulation to audit their algorithms: to force them to not collect as much data from people, so that they become less addicted to data and less prone to abuse.
- It has been argued that to the extent that social media increases the number of people one can relate to, it provides a broader access to very diverse opinions, which in turn provides a better contrast between plural information, and a better knowledge. What do you make of this broader access to knowledge?
In itself it is good. I think we are living in a golden age of access to information. So, someone who has a mature worldview and who knows where to find the sources of good information, this person is in a much better position than anyone who lived in the past centuries. We have very smart people producing content and we have access to it either for free or for a very small price. You can engage in conversations with people from Japan, South America... anywhere! For people who know what they are doing, it is a dream. That is one of the reasons why we can think of those technologies as increasing the inequality gap, because if you do not know how to use them they become a huge waste of time and you are being manipulated. So again, this broader access to knowledge is the part of the promise of the internet that has been fulfilled to some extent. And I think it is something very positive. It is about how we can keep that but at the same time solve the problems that the internet has created.
- What do you think is then the relationship between knowledge and freedom? And to what extent do you think social media empower individual freedom, or rather they drown people under an overload of misinformation?
The relationship between knowledge and freedom, as I see it, is that freedom is not just free will. And although free will is needed for freedom, it is not just the capacity of choosing x or z. It is also the possibility of discerning if x is better than z, or z better than x. I think that is why knowledge is important. You can only choose when you are able to weigh on the options that you have. That is why when you manipulate people you are giving them false knowledge, so they decide thinking that they are deciding freely but they are not. Basically, they do not know the choices they have.
- In an article in The Economist of 2017, the author studies the threats of social media to democracy, and affirms that "everyone who has scrolled through Facebook knows how, instead of imparting wisdom, the system dishes out compulsive stuff that tends to reinforce people's biases." To what extent do you think social media promotes uniformity of thought, thus endangering the freedom of expression, through the systematic biased feeding from the very app itself?
Again, what social media does, if you look at the few papers that social media companies published on their algorithms-and here I have especially in mind the papers on recommended videos on YouTube, because we have at least 3 papers that the people who made the algorithms published-they are quite explicit about their goal: they are trying to maximize the time people spend on the platform. It is evident that that is what they want: they are monetizing eyeballs. They are harvesting people's attention and selling that to advertisers. When it is music content, who cares? The problem is when you go to political and social content because we usually love hearing that we are right, hearing people that confirm our biases. The algorithms are going to give to each person a customized feed that will keep that person in the platform. And the problem when we hear our voice echoing on social networks is that we tend to become more and more dismissive of someone who thinks differently. For sure you become more intolerant with people who think differently, because you gain the impression that someone who cannot see what you and everyone in your feed sees, either is stupid or dishonest. And that is very toxic for democratic deliberation.
- In line of the last question and in more general terms, what do you think is the relationship between social media and critical thinking?
Social media can be a very interesting exercise on critical thinking, again, especially if you are intentional about that. I know some people that make an effort to follow people that they disagree with and forums of people very unlike them. I do believe that is the minority. Most people are on social media just to kill time, because it is a way of resting-although a very poor way of resting and relaxing. But you can make an intentional use of social media to make your critical thinking more sophisticated. And a very interesting way of doing that is saying "where can I find the most sophisticated articulation of the ideas that I disagree with?", and then try to engage with them. Because most of the time, when you are in your digital bubble you are always attacking strawmen, you are never really engaging with different points of view. For that, you need to go against the flow of the algorithms.
- In November 2017 Twitter changed the format of the tweet by doubling the character limit from 140 to 280 characters. Regarding the topic of critical thinking, how do you think the brevity and speed of social media affect the opinions of the users?
It makes people more superficial in the way they adopt their opinions, because we need time to make a judgement. People want to be part of the conversation, but in order to do that, you need to have an opinion. Brevity has one advantage: it forces you to go to the essence, the core of that topic. There is some virtue in that, because to some extent it forces you to take out the flourishing and get to the core. But at the same time, it creates an incentive for soundbites, things that are witty and smart but very superficial.
- What do you think is the relationship between social media and stereotypes, prejudices or discrimination?
Most of the time even when we do the good thing, we don't do it because we feel that's right. It is usually out of compliance: because everyone is doing it and if I do something else they will look at me weirdly, and I don't want that. We are always measuring our social environment to calibrate this internalized voice of culture. Social media is giving you thousands of signals about what culture around you thinks, or believes, or defends, protects, attacks... So it can reinforce stereotypes, but it can also do the opposite: it can challenge them.
- In the TELOS magazine, in 2017, Rocio Ortiz states that "the social ciber-movements promote processes of active participation of direct and deliberative democracy open to all the citizens." To what extent do you think social media empowers democracy through a broader freedom of expression taking into account the extreme polarization that we see nowadays in society?
Yeah, that was one of the biggest promises: that we could have almost a plebiscitary democracy. But it seems to me that the digital infrastructure that we have now is not designed towards that. It is used for propaganda. It is not deliberative; it is not for people to decide together. It is basically for people to put up billboards. They are not deliberative platforms. Those platforms have to be created if we want to have participative democracy.
- The first question I asked you in this interview had to do with the evolution of social media up until today, but what about from today onwards? Where do you think social media is heading in 5, 10 to 50 years from now?
Everything depends on whether we can regulate social media in order to tame the worst instincts of the digital platforms, and at the same time to foster the good instincts that are there-to make actually a tool for people to get to know each other and to work together and to foster communion between people. That is the good route that we can have. If that is the case, it will reinforce democracy, especially this type of democracy that we live in, which is liberal democracy. The danger is that we are creating a system that is nothing short from being an infrastructure of a totalitarian state, where you collect millions of data points about every single citizen and you give access to those data points to the State, and you also give access to social actors who are willing to manipulate public opinion. So what social media is going to become I don't know. I think it depends on whether we can make sure that social media is used in a way that is not toxic for democracy, but it actually increases our possibility of being in communion with other people.
The interview went surprisingly well, and I was very impressed by the comprehensive knowledge that Mr. Gonçalves provided. He displayed a fascinating understanding of such an interdisciplinary subject as social media is, for it incarnates the intersection between politics, sociology and technology. In general terms, the interview gave me a more nuanced perspective over the subject. Alexandre made it very visible how complicated the issue is and how social media is not inherently neither good, nor bad, but rather it is up to the user. He, in fact, expanded on the responsibility of the user and the possible regulations from the government with a realistic and scientific tone. These are valuable ideas for my research, given my initially hopeless view on the problem. Mr. Gonçalves recognizes the ideological manipulation that is happening, but he has not thrown in the towel yet. He believes in the freedom of the user, and so do I. Listening to what he had to say, I was convinced of the potential reversal of the situation, with a hopeful belief in a better future for social media, where democracy and conversation may be empowered. This has definitely changed my understanding of the controversy.
More concretely, when asking him about the past and the future of social media, I was impressed by his clear focus on the dichotomy of innocence and confidence on the new technologies. I had not thought of this before, and I now understand that the present situation with social media is the result of the uncertainties of its first days a decade ago. Moreover, far from cynicism, Alexandre recognizes the economic motives behind the addictive nature of social media. He helped me see how technology is primarily based on entertainment and advertisement. The phenomenon that he defines as "monetizing eyeballs," is far from a paranoid view, but rather incarnates the reality of communication nowadays, which, as Mr. Gonçalves points out, is destroying the initial dream-perhaps utopian-of a more participative democracy. This gives me a completely new understanding of the dissatisfaction of social media and its influences on the future of the political sphere, and a very rich field to investigate in the upcoming research.
Although I was greatly satisfied with the insights Alexandre provided, if I were to have a second interview, I would probably reach out to someone from a different background. I think a Twitter employee could frame the question from a business point of view, which would not only show the economic interests of the social media companies more clearly, but also the way they see themselves. That opinion would be of incredible value to the conversation and an interesting contrast with Mr. Gonçalves' scholarly perspective.
- Pew Research Center (2014), "Social Media and the Spiral of Silence."
- Rocío Ortiz. "Nuevas tendencias de participación política en la era de las redes," Dossier Telos 107 (2017), pp. 71-81
- "Do social media threaten democracy?" The Economist, November 4, 2017: https://www.economist.com/leaders/2017/11/04/do-social-media-threaten-democracy