Knowledge, power and social media

Surrounding controversy over suppressing conservative news in its Trending Topics section, Facebook announced that it would change some of the procedures in the section, which among other things would leave little room for its editors to influence it with their ideological inclinations. In addition, the company also made public the procedure through which the news items for Trending Topics are selected. As the social media giant disproportionately relies on public approval for its business it had to pander to any allegations that question its impartiality. However, this does not negate the point that considering the tremendous influence that social media giants have particularly in the areas of knowledge production and dissemination, they work in rather mysterious ways. And as millions of people are bombarded with information from these social networking sites on a daily basis, their opaqueness does raise important concerns.

In today’s elaborately connected world, physical differences have been rendered ineffective in blocking information flows. The tremendous speed at which information reaches different parts of the world has become so hackneyed that people seldom realise its implications. Not only is this information flow making individuals more informed about current events but also it is producing new sites where knowledge is being produced and disseminated. Social media has carved out a big niche for itself in this regard, and to a certain extent it has made conventional modes of knowledge dissemination, particularly newspapers, démodé. As its complex algorithms take in the personal information of the user, including his or her activity, and churn out tailor-made suggestions that it deems suitable, it would not be so absurd to suggest that social media controls the information that the individual receives.

All this connotes is that people’s perspectives are increasingly becoming narrower. As they are only getting exposed to information that conforms to their tastes and opinions, their existing beliefs are getting reinforced at the expense of nuance and inherent tension in thought that arises from analysing competing views. For some people, this exercise of inflating their egos while minimising psychological distress may even lead to intolerance as they become self-assured of the veracity of their own beliefs.

Taken in the broader context of knowledge production, the social media phenomenon reveals that knowledge is inherently subjective. Different sites of knowledge production manufacture different versions of what they consider as the ‘truth’. However, this does not mean that all versions of knowledge are equally true as there are different gradations of truth, which sometimes is unrelated to the degree of its mass acceptability. The discourse that ends up occupying the greatest public space is the one that has the greatest power behind it. More specifically, powerful groups and organisations are able to use their resources to produce and spread the information that benefits their interests. This intricate link between knowledge and power works both ways as power is able to spread knowledge, which in turn buttresses the power.

Realising this link between knowledge and power is pertinent to challenging mainstream discourses and narratives. Eagerly accepting information that conforms to one’s beliefs and opinions may be easy, but that does not make it necessarily true. The need of the hour is a critical approach towards information, and a willingness to investigate matters before forming an opinion. Only such an approach can break the spell the intolerance that plagues the world in the modern era. 


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