The end of real social media

Not only are billions of people around the world stuck with their mobile phones, but the information they consume has changed dramatically—and not for the better. On dominant social media platforms like Facebook, researchers have documented that falsehoods spread faster and more widely than similar content that includes accurate information. While users don’t ask for disinformation, the algorithms that determine what people see tend to favor sensational, inaccurate, and misleading content, because that’s what drives engagement and therefore more ad revenue.

As internet activist Eli Pariser observed in 2011, Facebook also creates filter bubbles that make it more likely that individuals will be served content that reinforces their ideological leanings and confirms their own biases. And more recent research has shown that this process has a major influence on the type of information users see.

Even setting aside Facebook’s algorithmic options, the broader social networking ecosystem allows people to find sub-communities aligned with their interests. This is not necessarily a bad thing. If you’re the only person in your neighborhood interested in ornithology, you no longer have to be alone, because now you can connect with ornithology enthusiasts from all over the world. However, the same applies to the lone extremist who can now use the same platforms to access and then spread hate speech and conspiracy theories.

Nobody denies that social platforms have been a major channel for hate speech, disinformation and propaganda. Reddit and YouTube are breeding grounds for right-wing extremism. The Oath Keepers used Facebook, in particular, to organize their involvement in the attack on the US Capitol on January 6, 2021. Former US President Donald Trump’s anti-Muslim tweets were also found to have fueled violence against minorities in the US. True, some find these remarks alarmist, noting that big players like Facebook and YouTube (which is owned by Google/Alphabet) are doing much more to control hate speech and disinformation than their smaller rivals, especially now that have developed best moderation practices.

Others argue that even if the current context of social networks is dangerous, the problem is transitory. After all, the new communication tools have always been misused. Martin Luther used the printing press to promote not only Protestantism but also virulent anti-Semitism. Radio proved to be a powerful tool in the hands of demagogues like Father Charles Coughlin in the United States and the Nazis in Germany. Disinformation is still rife in print and broadcast media today, but society has adapted to these media and managed to contain its negative effects.

This argument implies that a combination of stronger regulation and other new technologies can overcome the challenges posed by social networks. For example, the platforms could offer better information about the origin of the articles; or the same platforms could be discouraged from algorithmically pushing topics that could be inflammatory or contain disinformation.

But these measures do not address the depth of the problem. Social networks are not only creating echo chambers, spreading falsehoods and facilitating the circulation of extremist ideas. They may also be shaking the very foundations of human communication and social cohesion, substituting artificial ones for real social networks.

We distinguish ourselves from other animals essentially by our advanced ability to learn from our community and accumulate experience by observing others. Our deepest ideas and most cherished insights are not generated in isolation or from reading books, but from being embedded in a social context and interacting through argumentation, education, performance and more. Trustworthy sources play an indispensable role in this process, which is why leaders and those with harassing pulpits can achieve such outsized effects. Previous media innovations capitalized on this, but none of them changed the very nature of human networks as much as social networks.

What happens when platforms like Facebook, Twitter or Reddit start to manipulate what we perceive as our social network? The truth is that nobody knows. And while we might eventually adapt to this change and find ways to neutralize its most pernicious effects, it’s not an outcome we should expect, given the direction the industry is headed.

The most corrosive effects of social media are starting to look exactly like what cultural critic Neil Postman anticipated nearly four decades ago in his landmark book Amusing Yourself to Death. “Americans no longer talk to each other, they entertain each other,” he observed. “They don’t exchange ideas, they exchange images. They do not argue with propositions; they argue with good looks, celebrities and sponsors.”

Postman, in a comparison of George Orwell’s 1984 and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, said: “What Orwell feared were those who banned books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, since there would be no one who wanted to read one. Orwell feared those who deprived us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much information that we would be reduced to passivity and selfishness. Orwell feared that the truth would be hidden from us. Huxley feared that the truth would end up submerged in a sea of ​​irrelevance.

While Postman was more concerned with a Huxleyan future than an Orwellian one, social media has been introducing both at the same time. As governments gain the means to both manipulate our perceptions of reality and reduce us to passivity and selfishness, our virtual friends increasingly control our thoughts. We must now continually point out our own virtue and challenge those who deviate from the prevailing orthodoxy. But “virtue” is what the online artificial social circle itself says; and, in many cases, it is based entirely on lies.

Hannah Arendt, another prophetic thinker of the 20th century, warned about where this could lead. “If everyone always lies to you, the consequence is not that you believe the lies, but rather that no one believes anything anymore.” At that moment, social and political life becomes impossible.

Previous article10 ways to become more aware
Next articleThe ‘gig economy’ transforms the city (and not necessarily for the better)