A single look at the people around us is enough to tell us that, in crises, one of the most common mechanisms for coping with tension and anxiety is to consume as much information as possible. Regular Joes and Janes suddenly turn into obsessive hoarders of information, keeping a close eye on the news and avidly listening to friend’s stories. The moment that social media entered the world, the tendency to gather information and pass it on skyrocketed. Many of us go to Facebook to get ours news updates, to see current photos and recent videos, and also to get a chuckle from one of the many creative memes providing a brief but welcome respite from our anxiety over the situation in the Gaza Strip.
Facebook’s newsfeed is constructed of an algorithm that presents us with information and contents based on the identity of our friends, the pages we have “Liked,” our interactions with other pages, and advertisers who’ve marked us as their target audience. Based on this logic, two people of the same age with exactly the same circle of friends, who are members of the same groups and have “Liked” the same pages, should have different newsfeeds and be shown different contents because of the differences in their personal interactions with each one of those friends and various Facebook pages.
The newsfeed we see on Facebook is, in fact, nothing but an illusion. On the one hand, our own notion of the public agenda is determined by what we see in our Facebook newsfeed; on the other hand, the same newsfeed is determined by what and who we select ourselves. Should we take this to its logical extreme, we arrive at the conclusion that we are captive by our own conceptions and opinions. On Facebook, we exist in a reality in which there is no range or pluralism of opinions, or, if you will, it’s a parallel reality to the one in which we really live, a parallel reality in which we preach to the choir.
Karl Marx once said, “It’s not the consciousness of man that determines existence but the existence that determines consciousness.” In many ways, the newsfeed on Facebook determines the consciousness of this era – the consumerist consciousness. At a time when the consumption of information is so high, it also determines our political consciousness. The fact that the virtual world is sterile and instantaneous, a world in which we carefully choose our “Friends” and our pages reflect our own values and opinions, creates a kind of magic loop in which our newsfeed only entrenches our original opinions and prevents us from getting a different and challenging point of view.
A common theory in social psychology posits that people takes their actions to the extreme when they interact with people who share the same beliefs. During demonstrations, for example, we often see people saying and doing extreme things they would never say or do under other circumstances, and these are legitimated by the fact that they are surrounded by others holding the same opinions.
Similarly, the Facebook newsfeed provides us with a false sense of security that validates our opinions and takes them to an extreme. A good example of this from the current crisis is the case of Orna Banai: the same false sense of security let Orna Banai and other opinion leaders active in social media say provocative things, which in their own daily reality – shaped by their newsfeeds – seemed as if they were part of the national consensus. The fall into a different, more varied reality with a greater range of opinions often comes as a rude awakening. Our balloon of perceived consensus pops right in our face.
The only way to inoculate ourselves is to challenge our own beliefs and invite people who do not share our identical opinions into our virtual space. Even more importantly, we must from time to time get our heads out of the virtual reality of our own newsfeed and take a deep breath of the more challenging reality out there.