Media gets a lot of flak these days. Maybe some of it is deserved but I think news people, in general, mean well.

I pursued journalism because I enjoy writing. As I immersed myself in the profession, I realized I love people, my community and the opportunity to share information that might make our world a better place.

When I first got into the newspaper business, the joke was “sex sells.” The trend remains true today with crimes like child molesting and rape raking in the readers. With web page statistics and Facebook and Twitter hits, it’s now easier than ever to tell what “sells.”

In Stephen King’s new compilation of short stories, the quote is “If it bleeds, it leads.” So as not to give anything away to those who haven’t read the book (it can be checked out at the Carnegie Public Library of Steuben County) I won’t tell you about the plot or the antagonist. I will just say the story starts with a television report from a mass killing at a school.

When we at the newspaper sell something sexy to our readers, they linger with our product and pick up the next day’s edition in case there are fresh titillating nuggets. The media source benefits from readers, or watchers, but the financial incentive is in advertising. Businesses buy ads where they think they will get the most exposure. One advertisement brings in exponentially more money than one reader. The newspaper has readers; the businesses have customers.

Social media, which has become increasingly popular with advertisers, has users.

“There are two industries that call their customers ‘users’: illegal drugs and software,” said Edward Tufte, statistician and professor emeritus at Yale University.

Tufte’s quote is among many words of wisdom by PhDs, engineers and former social media executives in “The Social Dilemma.” Released Sept. 9 on Netflix, “The Social Dilemma” intersperses a family drama with testimony from experts, many of whom have left powerful jobs in the social media industry. They voice concerns not just about the ethics of controlling human minds but the potential catastrophic consequences of civilization divided.

It is emphasized that a relatively small number of engineers make decisions that impact billions of people. Another main point is the profit motive, which balloons daily, making it harder and harder to stop an engine that is lining the pockets of the world’s wealthy investors.

Social media users don’t pay for the privilege. Instead, through their usage patterns and interests, they provide data that is used to tweak media companies’ products and in turn attract advertisers. Never mind if the platforms expose preteen girls to excessive “selfie” consciousness. Never mind that children are now being targeted like adults with advertising and input.

And, the input is customized. The friends I pick and the pages I like tailor my experience. Situations described in “The Social Dilemma” show people can be polarized with inflammatory facts. Fake news travels faster on Twitter than real news, said a former Twitter head.

People want to be “liked” and they want to fit in. When their “friends” share points of view, they are likely to embrace them. When their friends “like” pages and political figures and conspiracy theories, they may claim them as well and share them too. Meanwhile, those with an opposite political leaning may be sharing their own pages, theories, videos and news stories. They interact in separate spheres of reality. This type of polarization could lead to violence and ultimately the end of civilization, according to “The Social Dilemma.”

“If we don’t agree on what is true or that there is such a thing as truth, we’re toast,” said Tristan Harris, a former design ethicist for Google and co-founder of the Center for Humane Technology.

Some of us can remember a world before social media but Generation Z was raised on it. Any kid who has used it regularly has been subtly influenced. They might not notice where their discomfort came from, but rising statistics surrounding self-harm, suicide, depression and anxiety can be linked to the rise of social media, says the documentary.

For many of us it is part of our lives — where we get our information, connect with our friends.

After watching the movie, I posted on Facebook, “I recommend ‘The Social Dilemma’ on Netflix for anyone who uses social media.” Within an hour I had 22 likes and six comments from those who had watched it, several saying it is “creepy.”

I put the phone aside but found myself clicking that blue “F” several more times Friday evening to see if someone else had liked my post. When I opened the site and didn’t have any notifications showing that someone had reacted to my words, there was a slight let-down, a lack of stimulation.

But while I was there, I went ahead and scrolled awhile …

Amy Oberlin is news editor at The Herald Republican newspaper in Angola. She can be reached at aoberlin@kpcmedia.com

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