Social Media And The Death Of Context

Last year just before and during the US presidential election, Twitter introduced a new feature that prevented users from directly retweeting tweets. A nuisance as the feature was to most people, myself included, it was an important step in reducing the spread of misinformation on the social site especially during a politically sensitive time like the US presidential election.

Twitter's explanation of the feature was that it was designed to slow down retweeting and consequent amplification of potential misinformation, which is very common on the site. Twitter's 280 character architecture coupled with its algorithms that encourage confirmation bias makes it the perfect breeding ground for loss of context in tweets posted and shared by users.

Tweets and headlines are taken at face value with zero regard for their justification or evidence of what they are purporting. Every day, it is common to come across tweets with tens of thousands of retweets sharing "fake news". Facebook and Tik-Tok are two other social sites where the propagation of misinformation because of the inability to convey context is very common.

Tackling the lack of context conveyance on social media sites is going to depend on the platforms themselves. Twitter adding that retweet feature shows that it's not like they are unable to tackle misinformation on their platforms, they just choose not to because polarization that comes about as a result of misinformation is very profitable.

With social media having become threaded into the fabric of modern-day society and replacing most of person-to-person communication, it is a shame that context, one of the vital attributes of human communication, is most of the time left off social media communication because of the design of the platforms.

Twitter has been at the forefront of improving context in their platform through the aforementioned extra step in retweeting and also through including a prompt for users to read an article before retweeting it. Facebook also introduced the same feature today. Tik-Tok is putting warning labels on videos on the platform. WhatsApp lets users know if a chain message has been forwarded numerous times. Apart from putting warning labels on COVID-19 related material, Instagram isn't really doing anything else. 

Although the above examples show there is some effort being put into curbing misinformation caused by lack of context on social media platforms, there is still a lot more to be done. Compared to the pace the platforms are capable of doing that, the current measures are moving at a snail's pace.