Every night, my daughter and I settle in for an hour or two of home-schooling lessons. I’d like to home-school her entirely, of course, but we need to work during the day, and as we’re isolated out here in the country, school is where she makes friends in the area. Our lessons exist to teach her things I’d like to see every child learn but that no school teaches – or very few.
Some lessons are in logic -- ad hominem attacks, post hoc ergo propter hoc, and non sequiturs. Some are in more general thinking -- the anthropic principle, Occam's Razor and the Barnum Effect. Sometimes we do history, or the Bible, or we do chores outside and talk. And as she grows into a teenager, the lessons must become more practical, as many of her peers have grown up seeing the world – and often, its ugliest and most twisted aspects – through a small glowing rectangle.
I would have preferred her to grow up without television or computers altogether, but I’m not the only person in her life, so I must compete against relatives, peers, school, and increasingly, the world on the other side of the screen. All I can do is limit what she sees, allowing more as she grows from child to adolescent, and talk to her about it. The most recent lesson, then, was how to use social media.
“I don’t plan to ever use social media,” she said. “There’s so much bad stuff on it. I only look up things for school, and web sites where young artists compare their work.”
I’m glad to hear you’re cautious, I said – you should be. And the artists’ web sites are fine – I've seen them. I’m pleased you’ve shown a talent for drawing; I don’t.”
“Thanks, but I don’t think I believe in talent,” she said. “I think if you have a passion for something you pursue it and practice it, and then you get good.”
Perhaps you’re right, I said – I’m pleased by your passion, and I’m fine with you looking at the artistic web sites.
“Also, I’m looking at it with the age restrictions on,” she said, “because some of it is …. You know.”
She said that to reassure me, of course, but I found it a bit sad that she is growing up keenly aware of the constant presence of adult material all around her. Wariness is necessary these days, but it is a poor substitute for innocence.
There are a lot of really terrible things that you get over the internet, I told her, and I’m glad you’ll avoid those – but what I wanted to tell you about is more fundamental. You might want to use the internet more someday – I use social media to keep up with friends and family scattered across the world – but there are a lot of dangers, so I’ll tell you about them in advance.
For example, I said, web sites like Facebook are free to use, and a billion and a half people use them, yet they are a big for-profit corporation. How do they stay in business?
“Advertising?” she asked.
Very good, I said -- some of it is advertising, but some is actually from logging what you “like” and selling that to companies, who then try to sell you things. If you click 'like' on a film, it gives you adverts for more products like it, and so do a lot of other companies. Once they know what entices you to buy something, they'll use that to their advantage.
But there’s another problem, I said. A lot of people get all their news from Facebook these days, and Facebook actually sends you certain news articles its computers think you’ll like.
A few decades ago, I said, more people read real newspapers and magazines, whose journalists investigated stories, like Hildy on His Girl Friday. They could be biased, of course – we’re all biased -- but they were expected to have a certain level of professionalism and etiquette, to report the facts, to use the English language well, and so on. Plus, different newspapers had different biases, so you could contrast their stories.
These days, though, most news comes from web sites, which anyone can create, and say anything they want. There need be no filters, no training, no peer review, and no standards. A few web sites are very good, but the ones that read the most are the ones with the most shocking headlines and stories.
“What if you just stick to the few good news sites?” she said.
I mostly do that, I said, but you still need to be able to look at what they’re reporting and think about it. You can stick with the BBC, for example, but there are a lot of stories they don’t cover. Also, you’ll get a lot of supposed “BBC” stories on BBC-looking web sites that are actually hoaxes – from “bbc.co.ru” or some similar-looking domain name. And you’d still need a variety of points of view, not just theirs.
That’s part of the problem of using the internet, I told her – social media sites like Facebook and search engines like Google remember what you’ve looked at in the past and give you more of it.
There’s no conspiracy – it’s just a computer programme, giving you more of what it thinks you want – but it means that if you “liked” a news article from a certain perspective, you get more of that perspective. If you liked a certain politician, then you start getting more articles by other supporters, and you end up looking at more things their supporters are looking at. In other words, the internet “herds” people into certain groups, and pretty soon you only hear from those people.
“What if they are people who are right, and you end up seeing more things that are also right?” she asked.
Good point, I said. The problem is that everyone thinks they’re right, and this way you don’t see any other perspective to compare yours to. Even if the information is accurate, there is a big difference in how important people consider it to be.
If you keep getting news about one political scandal, it will seem like the biggest news in the world, since that’s all anyone’s talking about as far as you can tell. But other people might not even know about it – their heads are filled with news about something completely different. They might not even be aware of the story you’re talking about.
“See, this is why I don’t want to ever use social media,” she said.
Don’t ever feel obliged to, I said. But if you do use it, I’m letting you know what to watch out for.
Same thing when we search something on Google. Most of us never look up something in the yellow pages or encyclopaedia anymore, we look at web sites. But anyone can put anything on a web site: if you want someone to say that Irish people have tusks, or that living things don’t evolve, or that humans never walked on the moon, there’s probably a web site that says that. But if people want to believe it, they can just get news from that web site and others like it, and never have to evaluate the news they never receive.
“It’s the anthropic principle, isn’t it?” she said. “We can’t make decisions on the news we don’t get, because we don’t get it.”
Excellent, I said – yes, it is like that. So for example, the US election campaign will have been going on for two years now – a sixth of your life – and certain people I know have been getting all the pro-Clinton news saying how terrible Trump is, and other friends of mine have been getting two years’ worth of news about how terrible Clinton is.
“What do you get?” she asked.
My politics don’t fall into many media stereotypes, I told her, and I’ve almost never “liked” anything on Facebook. I use search engines that claim not to track you, and when I use web sites like Amazon, I go under assumed names. I can’t avoid being tracked completely, but I try to make it more difficult for people. And my friends are a mix -- Trump, Clinton and third parties.
In any case, I just look up issues I care about, and see who matches based on their voting record or platform. That’s the way voting should be – it’s just a job interview, and you’re the employer.
“So why not just refuse look at any of these articles?” she asked.
That’s easier said than done, I told her. I mean, more and more web sites are making their articles widely read by putting outrageous headlines on them; they’re called “click-bait.” You’ll see headlines like “Hillary Clinton stomps on puppy,” or something.
Most of them aren’t true, or only have a grain of truth, or the headline has nothing to do with the story, and many people never read the story anyway before passing it on. They only exist to “go viral” – like viruses, being passed around is their only function.
“I’ve seen those on drawing web sites,” she said. “I saw one that said, ‘Watch this video before rich people take it down.’ Those seem to be popular; I'll never click on them.”
Yes, I said, they entice you with the lure of special knowledge, but of course if they had special knowledge, they wouldn't be putting it in an internet advert. But since a lot of people are struggling these days compared to the future they were promised, these clickbait links imply a conspiracy, and promise shortcuts around it – ‘Person learns five languages in three days – Teachers hate her!’
“Why would teachers hate someone learning things?” she asked.
Exactly, I said -- like most conspiracy theories it avoids giving the conspirators any plausible motivation. But it offers something forbidden, like telling people “Don’t push this button!” It takes mental self-control to resist that, I said.
“You know,” The Girl said, “In retrospect, it might not have been a good idea for God to say, ‘don’t eat this fruit.’”
We both laughed. I know, I said – restraint has never been our species’ strong suit, and now we have technology that can capitalise on that. But a few basic precautions can take you a long way.