Social Media Makes The World Worse, Not Better

I will deactivate most of my social media accounts as of February 1st, 2019.  By most, I mean the major ones Facebook and Twitter.  I’ll keep my Instagram and probably even my rarely used Snapchat. However, Facebook and Twitter will be removed seeing as I can no longer justify using them.

Why wait? It’s a mixture weening myself off the habit of checking them along with needing time to unravel Facebook from my life. There are several services I signed up for years ago using Facebook and continue to sign-in with Facebook today. I’m a busy person, so disconnecting those won’t happen overnight.

Facebook and Twitter are Fundamentally Flawed

Since the advent of social media, there has always been the quiet murmur and passive speculation about what effect platforms that connect people at the scale of Facebook and Twitter would have.  Many questioned whether or not it’s benefits would outweigh what many foresaw as the consequences of their adoption. In light of privacy breaches and the toxic political culture that came to a head during the 2016 United States Presidential Election, many others have also given pause to consider what social media is doing to us as people.

The idea behind social media sounds noble enough, right? Facebook’s selling point, right on their front page, is “connect with friends and the world around you.”  Twitter’s is “see what’s happening in the world right now.”  With the help of these services, one can quickly and easily connect with friends new and old, stay in touch with family, connect with colleagues, share ideas and perspectives and stories about our lives with the people who mean the most to us. We can even make new friends and connect with the friends of our friends or, in some cases, entirely random people on the internet through a myriad of business pages, groups, and the public postings of our favorite celebrities and public personalities.

Doesn’t that sound so wonderful? Imagine the possibilities of what humanity can do and accomplish through a medium that makes it so easy to share thoughts and ideas and experiences. So much of the human experience as told for centuries through the eyes of art, artists, and philosophers is rooted in the connections we have to the people around us and the experiences we share with them. Astronomer Carl Sagan described the importance of human relationships in the vast emptiness that is our universe in his  book “Contact”, writing “for small creatures such as we, the vastness is bearable only through love.” As Facebook put it in an ad they published earlier this year, “and just like that, we felt a little less alone”.

However, companies like Facebook are overly idealistic and fail to consider two critical shortcomings of their platforms: (a) the connections we forge online are inadequate substitutes for real world relationships, and (b) that the platforms create an echo chamber that helps validate, reinforce, and spread ideas that are fundamentally harmful to society at large and antithetical to the stated goals of the platform.

Over the last decade, we have continued to grow further apart from our friends and family as we become more reliant on social media. A study in 2017 by the American Journal of Preventive Medicine found a direct correlation between the amount of time a person spends interacting on social media and feelings of loneliness and isolation.

We have also seen bad actors begin manipulating social media as a means to spread propaganda, messages of hate, and to ruin the lives of completely innocent people over the ominous “fake news” and arguments made in bad faith. This problem isn’t even unique to politics. There have been numerous cases over the last decade where individuals have been misidentified, or people have been publicly shamed for innocent transgressions or lack of political correctness. Just this year, Facebook has removed over 14 million pieces of content by and for terrorist causes. They say that number is rising, and you’d be naive to think that a sizable amount of that content wasn’t first seen by several thousands of people before being flagged and removed.

Facebook and Twitter are directly fueling these issues by nature of their design and due to a misguided set of principles. These platforms have a low friction to join and low friction to post. It’s part of their philosophy of getting as many people on the platform as possible (so that they can charge premium fees and ensure maximum reach when they sell ads) and keeping you creating as much content as possible so that it takes longer for others to consume it (thus ensure you also have a chance to see more ads that they sold). It’s the business model of pretty much every successful social platform and it’s one we’re happy to pretend isn’t a problem because of the warm and fuzzies we get from the idea of what social media is billed as doing: connecting people. The cost of this is only realized later- after we have now sacrificed weeks worth of our life into unfulfilling connections, given away millions of pieces of information about ourselves to unsavory marketers and bad actors, and provided a means by which evil and deranged individuals can find other evil and deranged individuals and become validated and inspired to harm others.

Whenever confronted with the aforementioned problems, social media companies are quick to retreat behind the shield of “Freedom of Speech”. After all, they merely want to help people exercise their right to express themselves and share in human experiences. It’s a well fortified position. It’s difficult, on the face of it, to really argue with them. Remember how great and inspiring their goal is? Remember how much potential it has to do good? How can you argue against reaching for that?  The thing is, we cannot let ourselves have delusions of grandeur. While these may be the intent of these services (psst, it isn’t, their intent is to sell ads and make money) the reality is much more destructive. Social media companies more or less gaslight everyone whenever they face criticism by trying to turn attempts to change them or hold people accountable into attempts at suppressing free speech and censorship.We need to realize, though, that free speech doesn’t provide one the right for an audience and that not everyone’s thoughts has a intrinsic right to be presented far and wide to those audiences in the public sphere.

Well, there’s a whole world out there where people fight to be relevant every day. And you act like it doesn’t even exist! You’re the one who doesn’t exist. You’re doing this because you’re scared to death, like the rest of us, that you don’t matter. And you know what? You’re right. You don’t. It’s not important. You’re not important. Get used to it.
– Emma Stone as “Sam
Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) (Film – 2014)

The realities of this situation are what ultimately made me draw the conclusion that there is no genuine reason for me to participate on the platforms. Previously, I had told myself that as long as I was aware of the risks that it would be fine. I don’t use Facebook or Twitter in these abusive ways, so it won’t be an issue. As my feelings on this matter evolved, I told myself that it was important that someone be on social media to help shepherd others away from it. After all, Jesus went to the temple to bring the good news to the sinners and heretics. The unfortunate truth is that my mere presence continues to contribute to Facebook and Twitter’s bottom line – no matter how small – and it passively encourages others to join or stay as a sort of “mob mentality”.  The argument has always been that nobody could compete with Facebook because this is where everyone’s social graph and content already existed. By being on Facebook and contributing to that graph, I’m continuing to contribute my information as something Facebook can sell and I’m continuing to reinforce my anchor to the content. That cannot continue.

Is there a fix? Maybe.

As they are currently designed, and due to their business models, it will be impossible for companies like Facebook or Twitter to effectively close Pandora’s box and truly reduce the harm their platforms cause. This is why I’m also not holding out for them to merely “be better”. The functionality and expectation of users is so deeply ingrained that any attempts to change it would be substantially disruptive to their business model and would be met with fierce opposition from users out of fear that it was some sort of effort to censor them.

Let’s suppose, however, they were to address these issues and make the changes necessary to reduce the harm inherent in their platforms. Effectively, they would need to make changes such as:

  • Remove the ability to post with a public visibility, hard limiting content’s reach to friends and friends of friends. This stems from the aforementioned “right to an audience” issue. The average person does not and should not have the inherent right to disseminate their ideology to significantly wide audiences, but that’s exactly what Twitter and ‘public’ posts on Facebook do. They provide a nearly frictionless, zero-cost means to take one’s thoughts and put it in front of millions of other viewers. They even have the added benefit of doing this with an algorithm that is subject to exploitation by bad actors who want to put propaganda, fake news, and hate-filled content in front of people in hopes of manipulating people’s emotions into behaving a certain way. The ability to reach audiences at this speed and scale shouldn’t be something we give away freely. It should be a privilege one earns by earning the trust and respect and association of others, not what an algorithm thinks is going to be most likely to keep us engaged.
  • Reduce the sophistication of the targeting algorithms so that targeting does become more difficult. If advertising is a must, then buyers should be limited in how extensively they can target users. Under current paradigms, targeting algorithms run the risk of targeting gambling addicts with ads for online gambling and alcoholics with ads for bars and, most disturbingly, impressionable users with radicalization propaganda. It’s a misconception that advertisers only use Facebook due to the accuracy of the targeting. It’s a nice perk but advertisers are ultimately going to go where the users are regardless of level of detail at which they can target their ads. Sure, advertisers want a return on their investments but by weakening their targeting ability it requires that the quality of their advertisements become better and the products they market more appealing to justify the spend. This ultimately creates a barrier to entry against unsavory, low-quality companies and products and protects consumers at the same time.
  • Remove the ability to “share” posts, removing the ability and incentives for “going viral”.  Going viral is one of the most destructive things on social media. It creates the false impression that whatever is being presented is healthy or valid because “certainly those 80k other people can’t be wrong”.  Unfortunately, they usually are… if they’re even real people. Speaking of which…
  • Force users to perform some series of steps to validate their unique, real world identity prior to posting content. This is not to respond to the often scapegoated anonymity that is frequently suggested as the root of the problem in cyber-bullying, but rather the reality that some users on Facebook and Twitter aren’t even real people. They use stolen identities and pictures of other users, but they may be entirely or partly automated as bots. Why? They are useful in the above situation – by giving something the appearance of being trusted, valid, and accepted by showing a lot of people in agreement. It’s a psychological manipulation, and it helps trick the algorithms by assigning too much importance to some content and increasing it’s likelihood of being shown to others. The only genuine way to combat this is requiring that any new sign-ups be restricted to only viewing content, while creating new content or interacting with content would require one to verify their unique identity.  It’s a difficult feat, but the trade-offs are a greater level of trust that the people you are communicating with are in fact a singular, real person and not a well-built AI bot or a single guy sitting in a call center somewhere controlling 30 accounts trying to give you the impression that their viewpoint is more valid than others.

The last one is a real kicker for a service like Twitter where the entire basis of the site is that anyone can tweet anything and everyone can see it. It really slows things down. Companies like Twitter would, essentially, have to verify single every user. A service like Facebook could skirt around it by not having public content at all and, perhaps, limiting exposure of non-verified users content outside of their immediate friends.

At the end of the day, these changes are mostly out of reach to companies like Facebook and Twitter. These companies are too established to make these drastic of shifts. If a social media site were to exist with the considerations above it would have to be built from the ground up. It’s an idea I’ve often thought about and, just perhaps, I’ll attempt to produce at some point. I often talk myself out of it because the chance of failure for such a service would be so high… but, people’s feelings are changing on social media. Maybe the time for something new is now.

Maybe people want to get back to basics. I know I do.

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