The World Would Be Better Off Without Social Media
It has a net negative impact on society.
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If the product is free, the product is you. And if the internet is good for humanity, that’s despite social media, not because of it. Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, et al. have long been celebrated for “bringing people together,” but if the recent past is any indication, these platforms will continue to exacerbate our already polarized nation much more than they’ll bridge the divides wrought by tribal politics.
After spending years choosing growth and competitive advantage over caution and privacy-consciousness, social media is in desperate need of a systemic redesign. Unfortunately, most experts believe we’ve long since passed the point at which any such effort might be possible, as Big Tech now includes the most powerful companies on the face of the planet, capable of giving even the president of the United States the boot. The inherent desirability of their various social media products, coupled with the network effect in which more users beget still more, has allowed them to scale to unimaginable dimensions. With no barrier to entry for users, billions of people have been brought into the fold, and that kind of mega-scale reach and the dynamics of the internet more broadly open the door to extremism in all its many forms.
This scale-at-any-cost philosophy has served as the azimuth for today’s social media goliaths, transforming them into too-big-to-fail, too-complex-to-manage entities that have gone virtually unregulated—a laissez-faire attitude that’s led to government propaganda, targeted harassment, emotional manipulation, genocide, and terrorist recruitment among other “misusage.” Moreover, the tremendous harm social media has caused in allowing outrage to so often hijack people’s minds is apodictic. Filter bubbles are not great for democracy.
Facebook and Twitter in particular need to get serious about mitigating future damage and understand that even though outrage makes them a lot of money, in the long run it’s going to make their business model unviable and really mess up the world.
Over the past decade, there have been countless incidents highlighting how easily social media can be used to further nefarious ends, chief among them the rise of the Islamic State. Daesh’s ascendancy was possible in no small part thanks to how Facebook and Twitter in particular reinforce “us versus them” narratives and expose vulnerable people to virulent ideologies while stoking festering hatreds. Such is the influence and scope of these platforms that they’ve transfigured the internet into a hive honeycombed with echo chambers in which billions of people indulge in heavily-filtered, self-affirming information while argumentation and indoctrination attract swarms of fundamentalists like mosquitoes to a sodium light.
ISIS even used a hashtag (#AllEyesOnISIS) to announce its 2014 invasion of northern Iraq, for God’s sake. As detailed in LikeWar: The Weaponization of Social Media by P.W. Singer and Emerson T. Brooking, though the Islamic State demonstrated an uncanny savvy in its use of social media, it was the technology itself — not any unique genius on the part of the jihadists — that lay at the heart of the group’s disruptive power and (early) disproportionate success.
With its surprisingly adept propaganda arm, ISIS more or less exploited social media to pull off a military feat reminiscent of the 1940 German blitzkrieg lightning-fast defeat of France, an operation that revolutionized mechanical warfare by introducing radio coordination between light infantry troops, tanks, and planes. Using closely linked communication theretofore impossible, the Germans capitalized on speed to overwhelm France’s perimeter defenses and sow fear beyond the front lines.1
The shocking surrender of Mosul by 30,000 Iraqi government troops equipped with an American-made arsenal that included Abrams tanks and Black Hawk helicopters to about 800 ISIS fighters equipped mostly with small arms echoed the blitzkrieg offensive pulled off by Hitler. With nothing more than staged photos filtered through Instagram, a bunch of fundamentalist thugs moving from skirmish to skirmish in technical trucks transformed into something larger than life. Armies of Twitter bots inflated Daesh’s modus operandi — spray and scatter — into fierce firefights, making brief encounters sound like significant battlefield victories. Propaganda artists spammed social media with triumphal announcements of freshly conquered towns and horrific images of what had happened to those who fought back, with each new post fueling a sense of the Islamic State’s momentum.
ISIS may have been defeated thanks to American intervention, but jihadists recognized the multifaceted role that images, audio messages, and videos play in both psychological warfare and recruitment, and terrorist groups have continued emphasizing social media campaigns. That includes Hamas and Hezbollah in the Middle East, Boko Haram in West Africa, and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). These organizations rally supporters using everything from gruesome photos of death caused by their enemies to quotidian news about social services they offer. Even the Mexican cartels are using Facebook and Twitter as force multipliers to intimidate, stalk, and extort their victims.
The Alliance to Counter Crime Online and the Counter Extremism Project have jointly concluded that, though they’ve been bending to mounting pressure to put a halt to radicalism, the world’s largest social media companies have neither the capacity nor the wherewithal to comprehensively remove violent extremist content and misinformation, despite the fiduciary risks this brings. Which doesn’t exactly bode well for the future.
Cancel Culture as Information Warfare
Ah yes, cancel culture: The petty information warfare strategy beloved by media snarks, academic snots, government shills, and all others who’re constitutionally delicate and not long for this world. I doubt I am alone in finding it ridiculous how these people, many of them journalists and pundits, organize and manipulate social media environments in service to a political agenda by dividing, dominating, and demoralizing those who don’t profess fealty to the Good Side™. This repression of thought, expression, and debate is now so firmly anchored in the mainstream, and the boundaries of public discourse so proscribed, as to make impossible frank discussions of anything remotely controversial.
And I submit that cancel culture is a phenomenon largely unique to the progressive Left, because the Left controls every major institution. That’s not some partisan projection on my part. Just think about it objectively: If the Left controls the media and newsrooms, higher and lower education, Hollywood, Big Tech, administrative government, and, increasingly, employers, do they not hold the cultural high ground? We see examples of this every single day. The culture precedes the politics. Even Jonathan Rauch has pointed out that Trump might be an “opportunist demagogue,” but he doesn’t have a totalistic ideology; the Left, however, does, and they’re marching through institutions imposing it on people, using cultural influence to muffle opponents. It’s gotten to the point where the only allowable conversations in certain social media circles are the ones in which all messaging is massaged to accommodate visceral feelings of leftist outrage and partisan loyalty is a precondition of friendship and respect.
Twitter is predominantly where cancel culture denizens reside. Though it’s neither the largest nor the wealthiest social network, it nonetheless exhibits a curiously tight grip on American culture and has evolved into both a professional flytrap for members of the media and a veritable thirst trap for the micro-aggressed.2
The prohibitive character limit renders nuance and subtlety all but impossible and makes the site fertile ground for misunderstandings. A tweet is a fast-paced, colloquial style of communication pitched in some approximation of online Millennial argot and particularly conducive to sanctimonious mob-like behavior on the digital screen, which is why it’s not entirely surprising that the network is infested with perpetually aggrieved types who devolve into primal-scream-therapy histrionics when presented with thoughts incompatible with their fragile worldviews.
Consecrated to Dionysian pie fights and the amplification of ugliness, complaints, and punishments, Twitter remains a platform which can be effortlessly wielded to incite outrage campaigns meant to cancel someone, as exemplified below with the Addison Rae ado.
Harnessing social influence to stir up the online cesspool and attract hordes of keyboard-clacking followers who love nothing so much as indulging in self-righteous indignation and are constantly preoccupied by matters of no possible consequence to oneself and are just impressively qualified as-all-hell for cognitive behavioral therapy, the obnoxious figures leading the canceling will reduce the persona non grata’s life to a single moment or mistake or event, stripping away all context and persisting until they’ve effectively trashed or demolished a career and convinced everyone that whoever’s being cancelled is a terrible person. Often, organized satellite mobs will harass friends and professional associates of those targeted, warning, “If you agree with or support this person, you’re in trouble too.”
Zuckerberg, Facebook, and Social Engineering
There’s a tendency to think of Silicon Valley as home to benevolent libertarians, individuals who struck it rich after dedicating themselves to creating applications intended to make the world a better place, or bring people together, or realize the full potential of the internet, or some other altruistic-sounding goal. But as time has gone on and we’ve learned more about the engineering behind social media, so, too, have we come to understand the rather sinister playbook that creators followed. Case in point: Mark Zuckerberg and his brainchild, Facebook.
The movie version of Zuckerberg is misleading. If you were to only watch The Social Network, you’d walk away thinking he’s a highly credible, albeit awkward, whiz-kid type of dude with no social skills. You might’ve even gotten the same impression after watching him shyly testify in front of Congress. Some have speculated that he’s autistic. Frankly, I’m confident Zuckerberg is more likely an alien than autistic. Those on the spectrum have difficulty understanding how other people’s minds work, to such a degree that it affects their moral reasoning. Zuckerberg, however, understands very well how the human mind works.
Most people know he studied computer science at Harvard; fewer people know he had a double concentration in psychology. Personally, I don’t think he’s a genius. I think he’s very clever and smart; I think he discovered the concept of mimetic desire before even Peter Thiel did (who happened to be Facebook’s first investor for $500k in 2004), and was cognizant of how the social dynamics of popularity and status influence human behavior; and I think he was a forward-thinker who understood trends and the power of social engineering. But very little new thinking was involved in the creation of Facebook. At its core — and this is largely true of all social media — Facebook is just the capturing and reselling of attention, which has been around since the dawn of the printing press. As Tim Wu observed in The Attention Merchants, Facebook is “a business with an exceedingly low ratio of invention to success.”
You could easily argue that Zuckerberg is an asshole, though, just as he was an asshole when he first created Facebook (originally called FaceMash) by hacking into Harvard’s directory and filching photos of students without their permission to make a Tinder-style website. (“Child’s play,” was how Zuckerberg later described the ease with which he’d broken into Harvard’s system.)
Since its inception, there’ve been ethical problems and ambiguities galore about Facebook, and the more you read up on this stuff, the more you discover how ambivalent Zuckerberg has always been about these concerns. Time and again despite internal objections, he chose growth and competitive advantage over caution and privacy-consciousness, believing that privacy and psychological well-being were just “obstacles in the way of having more information.” The “move fast and break things” mentality ruled up until he was forced to account for his platform’s role in spreading disinformation pushed by Russia leading up to the 2016 election—disinformation that was laughably negligible, as covered in a previous Euphoric Recall post.
Here’s Zuckerberg in a private chat with a friend years ago, on the mountain of data he obtained from Facebook’s early users: “I have over 4,000 emails, pictures, addresses … People just submitted it. I don’t know why. They ‘trust me.’ Dumb fucks.”
Then there’s the fact that, according to Kate Losse (“Facebook employee #51”), the company didn’t employ a “one-way hash function” (a cryptographic algorithm) to encrypt passwords until much later on, which means your passwords were exposed to all Facebook employees; they even had a “global password” that allowed them to log into any profile. Also worth mentioning is one of Zuckerberg’s early ideas: “Dark Profiles.” Essentially, this concept allowed users to create profiles for their friends — or really just about anyone who didn’t already have a Facebook account — with nothing more than a name and email address, and once the profile existed, anyone could add information to it. This was meant to serve as “a tool to motivate stragglers to sign up” after being cajoled by email alerts showing what other people were posting about them.
Adrienne LaFrance wrote in a story for The Atlantic that “Zuckerberg’s path to world domination was inevitable.” Apparently, he’s always had an obsession with the idea of conquering the world for supposedly beneficent purposes, which has manifested in various ways, including his predilection for computer games about global conquest, his fanboy affinity for Augustus Caesar (who had a lust for power and conquest), his long-standing interest in the Roman empire, and the “interests” he’s included over the years in his Facebook profile: Eliminating Desire, Minimalism, Making Things, Breaking Things, Revolutions, Openness, Exponential Growth, Social Dynamics, Domination.
The dangers posed by Facebook are not theoretical, and these dangers are amplified by the size and scope of the platform itself, which makes it a tantalizing place to experiment on people. Given that the platform has become too big to moderate in any meaningful way, it’s fair to wonder how it, and Zuckerberg, will influence the future. Consider some of the more notable incidents on Facebook’s inauspicious track record, as noted by LaFrance:
Facebook has conducted social-contagion experiments on its users without telling them. Facebook has acted as a force for digital colonialism, attempting to become the de facto (and only) experience of the internet for people all over the world. Facebook has bragged about its ability to influence the outcome of elections. Unlawful militant groups use Facebook to organize. Government officials use Facebook to mislead their own citizens, and to tamper with elections. Military officials have exploited Facebook’s complacency to carry out genocide. Facebook inadvertently auto-generated jaunty recruitment videos for the Islamic State featuring anti-Semitic messages and burning American flags.
The House Always Wins
It’s easy to assume that social media has only relatively recently been annexed for ill-will. There’s the sense that the social web was once useful, or at least that it could’ve been good, had we only tweaked one or two things. Nothing could be further from the truth. Today’s social networks were designed in such a way that their very architecture encourages and perpetuates the things that make them so harmful.
Indeed, many of the creators have admitted as much, including early Facebook investor and founding president Sean Parker, who, in an event hosted by Axios in 2017, said the massive social network exploits a vulnerability in human psychology by employing a social validation feedback loop to attract and retain users’ attention: “The thought process that went into building these applications, Facebook being the first of them ... was all about: ‘How do we consume as much of your time and conscious attention as possible?’” he said. “And that means that we need to sort of give you a little dopamine hit every once in awhile, because someone liked or commented on a photo or a post or whatever.” He also added, “God only knows what it’s doing to our children’s brains,” which isn’t exactly a ringing endorsement of the product you helped introduce to the world.
It just so turns out that I, too, have always had an interest in psychology, particularly behavioral psychology. Which is why I deleted my Facebook around 2012 or so. It occurred to me one day as a sophomore at West Point that I seemed to always have an itchy desire to open the site, and that I was especially drawn to it at night when I should’ve been studying, even if only to simply refresh my news feed over and over again.
This realization inspired me to look into social media a bit more, and I discovered something interesting. You know what these sites are very similar to?
Prior to nixing Facebook, the concept of intermittent rewards had briefly come up in a leadership psychology class I was taking. Connecting the dots led me to the above book, which in turn led me down a rabbit hole to the concept of “FOMO,” and so on and so forth, until I ultimately realized that Facebook was specifically engineered to prey upon all kinds of human psychological vulnerabilities. It’s now been long-established on an intellectual level that all social media is addictive, and that these platforms use the same techniques as gambling firms — variable reward schedules — to create psychological dependencies.
Introduced by psychologist B.F. Skinner in the 1930’s, the concept of variable reward schedules stems from his experiments on how mice react to reward-associated stimuli. Skinner found that mice responded most frequently when the reward was administered after a varying number of responses, precluding the animal’s ability to predict when it would be rewarded. Humans operate in much the same way; when we perceive a reward is delivered at random (i.e. — likes, retweets, reposts, etc.), we’ll habitually check for the reward.
Studies have shown that Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, TikTok, et al. even produce the same neural circuitry of recreational drugs, as the constant stream of retweets, likes, and shares affects the brain’s reward area and its dopaminergic pathways. When you get a like or a mention or whatever, the brain receives a rush of dopamine that causes you to feel a sense of happiness and pleasure. In this way, social media provides an endless amount of intermediate rewards in the form of attention, recognition, and affirmation from others for relatively minimal effort, a sustained cause and effect process that rewires the brain through positive reinforcement.
Another perpetuating component of social media addiction is the fact that the reward centers of the brain are most active when people are talking about themselves. In real life, it’s estimated that people talk about themselves around 30 to 40% of the time. However, social media is all about showing off one’s life and accomplishments, so people talk about themselves a staggering 80% of the time. When a person gets positive social feedback whilst talking about themselves, it also stimulates the brain to release dopamine, rewarding that behavior and further solidifying the social media habit.
It’s important to remember that these companies don’t exist to facilitate the digital commons or improve relations or “make the world a better place,” regardless of what they might claim. They exist to make money, and they do so by using data to tailor content algorithmically, encouraging engagement that’s valuable to advertisers. Simple as that. Everything else is secondary. Sure, each platform does some “good” things, but those are by-products. The scale-at-any-cost business model is not conducive to civic health, and I believe that the world would unquestionably be better off if social media ceased to exist.
In conclusion, here’s an informative clip to watch if you’re so inclined. Jaron Lanier is a weird looking dude, but he’s also a very smart dude with a book worth reading.
Which is also exactly what Ukraine has been doing since their offensive began a month ago. The speed and scope of their success thus far and how they’ve managed to pull it off is something that’ll be taught for decades to come.
In other news, Elon Musk proposed the completion of a deal to acquire Twitter at the original offer price of $54.20 a share, reversing a months-long effort to terminate the agreement. If I had to guess, I’d say that Musk’s about-face has less to do with outright capitulating than it does him having reached the point where he’s overly tired of the platform’s BS and is eager to start making changes, bots be damned.