Back when I was in college, then-candidate to the presidency, Barack Obama visited the university while on campaign. Everyone at the office where I worked to make ends meet as a grad student was so excited. I decided to go with them to hear what Senator Obama had to say. The experience was enlightening. I learned that he was a talented orator. I heard compelling stories about his childhood. What never came up was a single one of his positions on policy. All my questions were left unanswered: was he prolife or an abortion advocate? Did he respect religious freedom? What was his stance on the threat of Islamic terrorism? After hearing President Obama speak that day, I knew he was not going to receive my vote. I knew this because I had been able to judge a man of flesh and blood. He had stood a few short yards away from me. He had had the opportunity to present himself as he was. That day, I had experienced democracy for what it is supposed to be: an exchange of ideas between citizens in the public square and the subsequent voting process.
The midterm elections are a few days away. Hopefully, we will all vote. But what is going to be the basis of our decisions? Will it be the result of careful scrutiny of the positions of candidates who had the opportunity to present their ideas to the public, or will it be a seething hatred borne of hours upon hours spent locked in a technological prison of our own making? Behind every social media platform there is something called persuasive technology. Its modus operandi is quite simple: we the users are the product. Twitter, Facebook, TikTok are all social media platforms meant to manipulate us to want certain products, think certain ways, and adopt certain social and political positions, depending on the needs of the companies they serve. Every detail of every app they produce has been designed by a psychologist, a web designer, and an artificial intelligence program. And the goal is to persuade us to do as the social media company bids.
What is the result? Millions of American citizens are reduced to minds locked in a bubble. Inside that bubble each mind experiences only what the tech companies want it to experience. The effect is like an echo chamber, but one designed to herd an individual into someone else’s purposes.
What is the alternative in an era dominated by social media and technology? Let us return to the public square. Let us continue to pressure our candidates to engage in the debates they seem so reluctant to accept. Perhaps if we risk a bit and actually argue with real people, we will be surprised to find that the political process is part and parcel of our human nature as social beings meant to engage with one another in real-time. Maybe, if social media were not so prominent in our politics, we would avoid embarrassing candidates such as John Fetterman or the many strange lapses in judgment to which we have been treated by President Joe Biden.