In the article above, we see how bad actors are gaming the algorithms of Facebook and Twitter to spread disinformation. We have seen how the proliferation of fake news has led to global catastrophes like Brexit, Trump’s presidency, and the resurgence of hate groups worldwide. We know that the algorithms that power Facebook and Twitter promoted false content because it creates more engagement on their platforms (read: “more profit”). It feels as though the concept of truth itself is being chipped away, being replaced by a cloud of lies, misinformation, disinformation, and opinion masquerading as fact.
What can we do to ensure the news we consume is real? An internet history lesson might point the way.
Staying Connected Before Social Media
It may be hard to remember how we stayed connected before Facebook and Twitter made it so easy to find your friends and easily share updates — but we did it. Most importantly, we did it without subjecting our personal information to the prying eyes and murky motivations of third party corporations. It was people-powered, free, and easy. Our news feeds contained only the information we wanted to see — no ads, no clickbait, no Russian bots. If you saw something in your news feed you didn’t like, you could remove it and it would stay gone.
The tools for staying connected pre-2008 were mainly powered by RSS (“Really Simple Syndication”) — an internet standard that let anyone publish updates and subscribe to their friends’ updates. You would open up an RSS reader app on your desktop or phone like Feedly or The Old Reader and see a list of headlines that you could expand to read more. It was a very similar experience to the modern social media feed, just without all the downsides.
There was a huge variety of tools that would let you effortlessly publish your activity via RSS, so you could create your own feed of the things you’re reading, watching, bookmarking, and writing. Your friends could easily find your RSS feed, subscribe to it, and see your updates with the same ease as a “follow” on social media.
The beauty of this “old school”, DIY approach is that it’s fully distributed, so everyone has full control over (A) what they share, and (B) what they see. Gradually, the convenience of social networks lured people into their walled gardens, but we gave up control over what we see in those apps. Our news feeds are now filtered according to a black-box algorithm where they promote “buzzy” content and demote other stories — so we see less from our friends and family and more clickbait articles designed to get us outraged and arguing.
We’ve seen the negative consequences of this approach, but what can we do?
Make the Internet Great Again (#MIGA)
The good news is that
all most of these RSS-powered tools are alive and well in 2018. You can get a free account at Feedly, Inoreader, or many other free and paid apps for every platform that will let you subscribe to a few reliable sources of news and take some control over what you read. You can install SubToMe in your favorite browser to let you easily follow the sites you care about across the web. You can post your updates to a blog instead of a social network so you can publish your updates out directly to your followers — even the ones on social media! This is called the POSSE method — you can read more here about how it benefits you.
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