The past two years have resembled an especially bad hangover for the social media industry. For so long, it threw the most popular parties and was showered with praise for its many supposed contributions to society. But in late 2016, the party abruptly ended. Rumpled and groggy, social media awoke to a flat strewn with the remnants of revelries past. Guests accused their host of crimes it didn’t remember committing, and, worse still, of violating their trust. They threatened not to attend future parties if things didn’t change.
Gone are the halcyon days of the early 2010s, when Facebook and Twitter took credit for the activism of the Arab Spring. The industry’s collective problems – from foreign interference to privacy scandals – seem to balloon by the minute, to the point where Silicon Valley is implicated in the downfall of democracy itself.
Siva Vaidhyanathan, professor of media studies at the University of Virginia and author of The Googlization of Everything, argues in his new book Antisocial Media that Facebook has made its users less deliberative. Jamie Bartlett, director of the Centre for the Analysis of Social Media at the think tank Demos, concurs. Writing in The People vs. Tech, he argues that social media is destroying our free will, encouraging tribal politics, bolstering support for populists and interest groups, siphoning capital from the middle class, and expanding monopolies.
In a scholarly work that could have used a little more signposting, Vaidhyanathan concludes that without significant and sweeping reform, including coordinated international pressure in a world where both coordination and policy are in short supply, Facebook’s problems are unsolvable. Its failings are in its ubiquity and its size, and therefore its lack of control over user-generated content. In short, Facebook’s problem is itself. Bartlett discusses the Trump campaign’s use of technology (though the Obama campaign pioneered many of these techniques), then presents an exhaustive menu of policy prescriptions to rebuild the crumbling pillars of democracy. Considering the reticence of social media companies to reform and the fraught state of governance across the West, it reads more like a wish list for a techno-political utopia.
Just say no?
More doable, perhaps, is the simple solution presented by Silicon Valley insider and virtual reality innovator Jaron Lanier in Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now. Lanier labels social media platforms “BUMMERs,” on which “Behaviors of Users [are] Modified and Made into an Empire for Rent.” Because the BUMMERs are so entrapped by their business model, which depends on their using everything they know about us to serve us highly-targeted advertisements, the companies are unlikely to change without an outside push – namely decreased engagement on their platforms. Lanier’s most convincing case for account deletion is that social media deprives important discussions of context and limits our capability to connect to others. It brings out the worst in human nature, privileging the snackable and sensational and demoting the nuanced and empathic.
Lanier’s Ten Arguments are more compelling than the many similar treatises on social media published since 2016 because of the author’s own provenance. It is starkly refreshing to read an alternative to the well-trodden tropes excusing Silicon Valley’s missteps. Instead, Lanier gives the reader – not a political scientist or engineer, but simply a social media user and citizen of the world – agency in deciding how much of our lives we should give over to entities which, according to one who knows them intimately, are only interested in maximizing the profit they generate from our data.
Though Lanier’s prose is at times sententious in the choppy, instructive style of a self-help book, his lecturing is permissible; perhaps a strong dose of self-help is what we need as we seek to divorce ourselves from the unseen influence social media exerts over our lives. Lanier cares little, however, that social media’s prevalence and convenience have made it genuinely difficult for people to quit. Outside of the ease it presents, social networking is no longer singularly social; business communications happen on Facebook Messenger and WhatsApp. In some professions, absence from Twitter is career suicide. Lanier merely instructs readers to find a balance of engagement that works for them, a piece of advice that leaves them far too open to future manipulation.
While many believe that tech may have irreparably damaged democracy, others have ideas to rewire the tech world for good. In How Democracy Ends David Runciman, professor of politics at Cambridge, suggests that while representative democracy has seen better days, we need not mourn it quite yet. Though he acknowledges the damage done by social media, Runciman is rather more forgiving (a bit too forgiving for my taste) of the tech companies involved, and suggests that with a firm dose of regulation technology may help democracy through its mid-life crisis rather than bring about its early demise.
Once control over social networks is attained, Damon Centola, associate professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg School for Communication, has ideas for how we might rewire them. In How Behavior Spreads, Centola explains that our general understanding of contagions and their behaviour is misguided. While simple contagions, such as disease, spread easily over weak ties and thin networks, complex contagions, such as vaccination programs and other behaviours that stem the transmission of disease, benefit from strong ties and close social networks. His online experiments use health communities to demonstrate how network structure and social relations affect the diffusion of positive health behaviours, such as dieting and regular exercise. Centola describes networks in which users have a greater degree of empathy towards others, as well as the means to compare themselves to each other. These networks can increase the adoption of complex contagions.
His ideas have exciting implications for social engineering, whether related to vaccination adoption in the developing world or a reduction of energy use in the West, but they could also be applied to the modern, ailing information environment. The interventions that governments and civil society organizations across the West have deployed to fight “fake news” largely center on fact-checking and awareness-raising. Centola categorises the spread of information as a simple contagion, while these correctives are complex and nuanced, and therefore unlikely to spread as far or as quickly as the information they seek to correct. While Centola’s research suggests it would be nearly impossible to seed corrective information online, planting behaviours within well-wrought networks might be possible. Facebook and Twitter could work with researchers to identify and map online communities who could take the lead in building research skills and media literacy among their networks. This targeted approach would be more likely to change behaviour than simply broadcasting public service messages about the ills of “fake news” to the entirety of the internet.
Centola’s ideas present an appealing possibility to meet one of the challenges of democracy in the internet age, but they and the other solutions presented here rely on the active participation, or at least acquiescence, of users and social media companies, Neither inclination yet exists. Even at the height of the Cambridge Analytica scandal in April 2018, Facebook enjoyed user growth, and though the social media industry is abuzz with fixes meant to restrict malign actors and increase advertising transparency, these changes are mostly cosmetic and don’t consider the biggest danger their platforms present: their business model. Only governments can force them to reconsider that which generates wealth.
The social media party may not be over, but it needs more than new decorations. It needs a doorman, a more responsible host, and attendees that actively hold both of them to account.
Antisocial Media: How Facebook disconnects us and undermines democracy by Siva Vaidhyanathan, Oxford University Press
The People vs Tech: How the internet is killing democracy (and how we save it) by Jamie Bartlett, Ebury Press
Ten Arguments For Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now by Jaron Lanier, Bodley Head
How Democracy Ends by David Runciman, Profile
How Behavior Spreads: The science of complex contagions by Damon Centola, Princeton University Press
Nina Jankowicz studies disinformation at the Wilson Center in Washington, DC