As this presidential election nears, the United States is more divided than ever before. At times, it seems some are living in separate realities, with completely different sets of facts that they hold true. The debate around wearing masks is a perfect example.

This may seem puzzling. After all, we’re all living in the same country and facing the same challenges. But a recent film on Netflix explains this sort of dissociation. “The Social Dilemma” explores how social media and tech giants are manipulating users for their profit.

Social media — Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and a host of other platforms — have value for keeping us connected. We can share pictures, videos, event invitations and simply communicate.

When we see our friends on Facebook, or we post something others like, that raises our endorphin levels, and so it can become addictive.

But videos and information from outside sources also appear in our feeds, and by studying the algorithms, the techies in charge of these can tell which ones draw more attention from each user.

So, those drawn to conspiracy theories, such as, say Pizzagate, may tend to see more material like that in their feeds. For the techies, the idea is to keep users on as long as possible. That’s what the advertisers want.

On the flip side, someone drawn to hyper liberal posts and videos will get more of those. In the end, each user is being fed information they ultimately want to see. And, in many cases, the information is misleading or completely untrue, sometimes designed to manipulate.

Journalists are taking note, and currently, the UW-Madison’s Center for Journalism Ethics and the nonprofit news team, Wisconsin Watch, have put together a news consumer toolkit to help judge the veracity of what we’re seeing on social media.

The Election Integrity Project includes useful information to keep in mind as those posts fly through our feeds.

Asking questions about the source of the information, when it was published, and how the sources are funded can help us all take in this information with a more critical eye.

Some would argue if we fail to do so, our democracy could be in jeopardy.

Howard Hardee, the author of the introduction to the toolkit warns, “As social platforms like Facebook, Twitter and TikTok, and private messaging platforms like WhatsApp and Telegram, have become central parts of everyday life in the U.S., falsehoods have flourished and our democracy has been weakened by an inability to agree on facts.”

The film, “The Social Dilemma,” illustrates this well, along with the enormous power social media has over our lives.

We are less than a month away from the presidential election, and now more than ever making sure we are wise consumers of information shared on these platforms is essential.

Take some time to check out the toolkit online at ethics.journalism.wisc.edu.

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