Sunday, January 25, 2015

Why are Facebook People So Gullible?

Facebook is the AOL of the Internet.

Hoaxes, rumors, cons, and outright lies seem to spread fastest through social media, such as Facebook and Twitter.   And it is not hard to fathom why.   People using these sites are the consumers of the Internet.   They have no idea how to code HTML or how the Internet even works.   They just want to go to a fun interface that is ridiculously easy to use, and then upload photos and rumors.

To be sure, people have been gullible on the Internet for ages.   But the level of gullibility really correlates to the level of engagement with the Internet and indeed, their own computers.   In the early days of "online" computing, we all dialed up to our local ISP to get online and send e-mails, monitor discussion groups, and explore this new "World Wide Web" thing.

Back then, AOL had its own version of the Internet, and a portal through which AOL users could escape the wading pool of AOL and dive into the deep end of the real Internet.   And once they got out of the wading pool, well, they were out of their element.  People called them AOLamers back then, as they were, well, pretty clueless about everything.   The Internet was a place for computer geeks, and people who took the easy route of using AOL were viewed as lazy and superficial.

Today, we see the same thing.  People use a cell phone or pad device to access Facebook (which to them, IS the Internet!) really have no clue how their devices work, how the Internet works, or what is truth and what is fiction.   The great unwashed masses (GUM) are now on the Internet, and it isn't a good thing, trust me.

When the Internet was dominated by computer geeks, there were issues, to be sure.   But computer geeks at least had some level of education and some level of intelligence.   Now, well, they let just anyone on, and the most clueless people are drawn to the easiest-to-use interfaces like Facebook.

Facebook's interface is stupefyingly easy to use.  You set up an account, upload some photos from your smart phone and Wa-La (as they would say) you have a Facebook page.  The interface is so dumbed-down a child could use it.

And I guess that is why I quickly tired of Facebook.   It is a piano with four keys.   You think you are being smart, clever, and original, but really you are just copying what everyone else is doing.

And Facebook is noticing this.   As I noted in an earlier post, the demographic shift of Facebook is alarming - for Facebook.   Not only are they not gaining younger users - they are losing them.  And at the same time, they are gaining older users - way older users - the over-55 set.   In other words, befuddled grandma's (the gender demographic also leans female, 55-45%).

Facebook is getting the reputation as the haven for hysterical old women who spread "Wal-Mart Slasher" scare stories, faster than the speed of light.

Snopes has nearly thrown up their hands in disgust  -  the speed and level at which urban legends are spreading on Facebook is overpowering their abilities to debunk them.   Log onto Snopes these days and you may see ten new entries of new urban legends - and almost all of them are "trending on social media" which means Facebook.

Facebook is trying to stem the tide.  They have tweaked their algorithms yet again in an attempt to quash "fake news" and urban legends from your Facebook news feed.  The problem is, does that smack of censorship?   There are people who believe that vaccines are a deadly hoax or that there are aliens in Area 51.   How far do you go to monitor people's beliefs and correct them?

And what about satirical news sites like The Onion?   Facebook proposes labeling those "satire" as the old fuddy-duddies on Facebook have never heard of The Onion and don't get something is satire unless you label it as such.

So, I am not sure Facebook's latest efforts will work.   You see, spreading rumors and fake news is what people like about Facebook.  The vast majority of the GUM like to spread these sort of stupid Wal-Mart Slasher stories, so they can say they are "in the know" and feel important, much as Grandpa likes to forward you e-mails with "interesting stories" in them.

The reason people like to "like" bullshit stories on Facebook are the same reasons oldsters like to forward chain e-mails.

Granted, e-mail had this same problem, not too long ago.  People were forwarding chain e-mails to their friends, and SPAMMERS were sending SPAM.   "Social Engineering" techniques were used to scam people into giving up their usernames and passwords (Yahoo! seeming to be the worst of these - the new AOL?).    E-mail providers quickly realized they had a problem on their hands.   Eliminate SPAM or die.

So algorithms today tend to filter out SPAM more effectively - perhaps too much so.   When Grandad does a mass-forward, it ends up in the SPAM box, simply because it is addressed to 30 people.   But the solution worked - SPAM is down a lot on e-mail these days.   And folks quickly realized that no one appreciates those mass-forwarded e-mails, rumors, and other junk that it is tempting to forward.

Facebook, well, that is just ALL forwarded SPAM.   In fact, the e-mail aspect of Facebook is difficult to use (perhaps by design).  E-mail has evolved into a more serious business conduit for important things.   Facebook is, well, computer entertainment for the plebes.

It remains to be seen if this new algorithm solves the fake news problem on Facebook.   I suspect it will backfire, as angry Facebookers decry the "censorship" of their favorite fake news stories.

Originally Published 01/25/2015  Updated 12/17/2016  Updated 05/02/2023