I wonder if there’s a “change-your-mind” metric gathered by Google, Facebook and other Internet companies on us. I’m sure there is, right? I think Google could probably predict my next waist size before I can. The fact that I just typed that provides analytical data, doesn’t it? OK, don’t be cruel, Google.

But it would interest me to look into Facebook’s treasure trove of data on you and see what they think actually sways you, what specific clicks show real behavioral indicators about you, because they absolutely have an opinion about you (and me) specifically, even if you’re not on their platform. When you get down to it, that’s the Internet’s monetary value, isn’t it? Internet companies have so much data that they can make accurate online behavioral predictions about all of us. And this digital insight is a gold mine, not just for goods but for governments, movements and criminal enterprises. The data gathering and selling holds a kind of power in our lives that feels more and more like a bad trade, at least to me. It begins to feel like every click makes me a target of some future product or political sales push. I also feel more and more wary of information collected secretly, then sold and used as propaganda force by left, right, domestic or foreign power. It is fair game for all — those with civic-minded intent but also those with criminal aims. And the criminals or bad actors tend to be the most motivated, right?

I would wager that most “swaying” of opinion is not conscious. We believe we are completely in control of our own belief systems, but I tend to think that’s only partly true. What’s in our heads and how we act are our responsibility. Don’t go blaming others when you do a terrible thing. I firmly believe this and am irritated when people take a childish “he-made-me-do-it” defense after their bad actions. But that doesn’t negate other facts. We are heavily influenced by how and where we grew up, who taught us, and whether the people who taught us cared much about right and wrong. Our economic standing at birth is a big factor in where we will go in life. It just is. And we make a variety of good and bad decisions along the way with whatever cards we’ve been dealt.

So when new information hits our brains, it travels through a circuitry that has its own peculiar tangle of electrical tape and solder wires. And when we get outraged online, it seems worthwhile to remember that we have a type of skewed vision, just like everyone else. There is no uniformity of experience, so there will never be uniformity of opinion. Also, most all of this online junk is free. Right? How much value would you put on any electronic gadget you got for free? How much faith would you have in the reliability of a microwave that sits in your house free of charge? Would you be surprised when sparks shot out from the side and the awful odor of a burnt Chinese plastic Hades remained in your kitchen for weeks? No, you would remember that you got that stupid appliance for free. You would kick yourself for relying on such a “free” thing.

But we do exactly this online every day and think that we are entitled to quality, even if it’s free. We see no responsibility in paying for reliable information. This huge, infinite pile of “stuff” out of the ether is generally not worth a dime to any of us, literally. I wouldn’t pay a dime for most of it, because there’s always something else available for free (even if it’s increasingly dubious). Would you pay anything, ever, when there’s too much already to absorb? No, you probably wouldn’t (which is why local journalism across America is in the process of dying). The only reason it’s free on Facebook is because you and I are good sales products that can be purchased in bulk like we’re items in a vast warehouse of Sam’s products. I fit into all sorts of sub categories based on my demographic information and click history, just like you.

The online information available to us for free is essentially — at least in economic terms — chum in the water existing to draw shark bites (clicks). The Internet’s economic engine is not quality driven. Therefore, locally oriented and monetarily self-sustaining information is pushed out more and more. This will have more and more impact on society in coming years.

OK, that’s preachy and self serving from the local newspaper editor. Yes, yes, you got me. But I also say all this to tell you my inner dialogue whenever I get really angry about anything online. Yes, there are actual injustices and there are plenty of things worthy of legitimate outrage. But often times, I’m just infuriated by the attitude of others. It’s the snarky tone, the overtly cruel post or some keyboard mob’s elation over belittlement that makes me want to react with blistering rage on the keyboard. I have typed numerous Facebook comments over the years full of righteous indignation at others for their attitudes. I have hit send on a few. I usually immediately delete them, because I almost instantaneously feel overwhelmed by a secondary emotion that presents itself in a more cutting form. I ask myself: “Are you seriously a sucker?”

First off, have you ever shouted someone out of their opinion? And have you ever been shouted out of an opinion? It doesn’t ever work that way, does it? Another person’s fury at our viewpoint just makes us double down on the opinion.

When I think of this truth, I remember that online character annihilation ping-pong matches are simply more cheap energy for the big-money players in the Internet economy. When I’m lured into this, it feels like I’ve played the fool for a bigger force, just as they wanted it. They don’t care if I’m right or wrong. The Internet engines just want me emotional and clicking. All the algorithms are set up exactly this way. What’s more, have you ever noticed that as you scroll down a Facebook feed that it feels mostly boring, but then you get these periodic reinforcements, these emotional hits? It’s like a slot machine. It hits just enough to keep you there, pulling the lever. This is simple mouse/food pellet psychology. There is a strategy behind this.

I’m in the big casino just like you. Writing a weekly column often makes me feel terribly annoyed with myself, as if I’m declaring some wisdom or knowledge and speaking from some place of smug self satisfaction. But I’m truly winging this most weeks and don’t have the chops or know-how to match wits with anyone who knows their stuff on most of the subjects I tackle. But I’m increasingly aware that I’m in an elaborate casino where the house’s eyes are watching me (and you) and recording action upon action into an actual server. So, I find it important to get my mind out of that casino as much as I can. And that casino will be a madhouse in 2020, won’t it? No doubt, we’ll focus on red-blue wins and losses, but I think there are other wins and losses in our society that need our attention, too. Wonder if you feel the same.

Zach Mitcham is editor of The Madison County Journal, a sister newspaper of the Barrow News-Journal. He can be reached at zach@mainstreetnews.com.

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