By Morf Morford
Tacoma Daily Index
How much do you trust your social media?
How much should you?
Social media, especially in times of crisis or isolation – or the unlikely combination of both – can be, or at least seem to be, a refuge and place of consolation and connection.
But are they?
Remember those innocent days of people posting pictures of their dinner plates or pets doing cute things?
I don’t know about your social media habits or “hygiene” but current events remind me of how crazy social media was during the previous election cycle.
Jaron Lanier’s 2018 book Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now, is as clear and definitive an account of the damage companies like Twitter and Facebook and Google do to society and to our individual psyches as you’ll ever read.
His premise, which is difficult to argue with, is that these platforms are addictive and even harmful—that their algorithms make users feel bad, divide them against each other, and actually changed who they were, in an insidious and threatening manner.
Users, he insists, makes us all act like classic addicts—on one hand miserable, and on the other hand very defensive and unwilling to blame the platform – even as we love and hate our devices and screens – and even admit that we could not imagine life without our favorite device and social media format.
How many of us are sick of looking at social media, even as we depend on it for framing, if not defining the most significant and necessary social movement and guiding principles of our entire existence and identity.
How many of us hit frustration levels with our techie tools that we have with no other aspect or implement that we use?
But, as the saying goes, there is far more to the story. Anytime you are provided with a service, like Facebook, Instagram, Google, Twitter, YouTube, even email for free, you are in fact the product being sold or at least marketed.
Social media companies are basically giant behavior-modification systems that use algorithms to relentlessly increase “engagement,” (or at least the illusion of it) largely by evoking powerful, if not irrepressible feelings in the people who use them.
These companies in turn sell the ability to modify your behavior to “advertisers,” who sometimes come in the familiar form of agents who want to persuade you to buy the latest gadget but who now, especially in election seasons, come in the form of malevolent actors who want to use their influence over you to depress voter turnout or radicalize white supremacists – or any extremists.
Instead of direct tangible sales, where we might exchange cash or swipe a card for an item or service, in exchange for likes and re-tweets and public photos of your kids, you are basically signing up to be a data serf for companies that can make money only by addicting and then manipulating you.
Lanier’s point is that, because of all this, and for the good of society, and certainly your own mental well-being, you should do everything in your power to leave it behind, or at least keep it at a safer distance.
Many years ago I knew several hackers and their assumption, back in the late 1970s, was that the internet was giving people a chance to be better, to know more, to lead more informed and compassionate lives.
In that world there need be no borders, no stereotypes and no categories that would fully define us.
We could connect in the world of ideas and values beyond backgrounds, ethnicities or language or location.
It didn’t work out that way of course. The Web seems to have drawn out and even amplified our worst characteristics.
It doesn’t need to be that way.
And many of us warn that it must indeed change – totally and immediately.
Younger people, once naively described as “digital natives”, are rapidly reaching a point of boredom, if not menace or shame regarding the intrusion of digital forces in every aspect of our lives.
Oddly enough the wave of unemployment caused by COVID seems to correspond pretty closely with predictions folks in the tech industry had made before, about the social and economic cost of the coming wave of A.I. (Artificial Intelligence) —automation, things like self-driving trucks, warehouse robots or delivery drones.
Many tech experts predicted a 10-15% tech related increase in unemployment stretching over 10 to 15 years.
Mass unemployment, and responses to it, have been the domain of thinkers and researchers for years if not decades.
Nobody imagined it would come this quickly – or, presumably, permanently.
Thanks to COVID, we hit that mark in a few months. But like COVID itself, many of us saw these economic changes long before they hit, but we knew that, one way or another, these shifts had to happen.
Social media, many of us theorized, would, or at least could, help us through social crises.
What few of us imagined was that social media would build an infrastructure of paranoia and tribalism for profit; leaving us with a world of oligarchs and autocrats who aren’t able to deal with, or even acknowledge, real problems like pandemics, wide-spread unemployment, income inequality, racial animosity or climate change.
Consider, for example, the flood of misinformation – if not outright dis-information – about masks and COVID-19 that was flying around Facebook and Twitter daily and in turn making its way onto Fox News which then was picked up, and echoed, without background or confirmation, by our sitting president.
This amplifying cycle of social media, cable news and presidential bully-pulpit, like a massive forest fire, creates its own (almost) convincing news cycle where the surge and impulse of the media is more convincing than direct life experience.
Which takes us to the point where hundreds of thousands die from this virus and yet many believe it’s a hoax at the same time.
Social media is creating a situation where we don’t believe what we see and experience and do believe the voices on our screens.
Many years ago I was living and working in Beijing, China. I had a brief conversation with a woman who was from Romania. She was a teacher in Beijing, as I was.
She had lived her entire life under enforced communism.
The Chinese news media was proclaiming the end of poverty in China – especially the end of public begging.
As we were walking, we passed several women prostrate on a sidewalk begging.
As we passed, I asked her how she made sense of the government pronouncement when she could see public begging right in front of us.
Her answer was very simple; “You just learn to privilege what you hear over what you see.”
In light of racial disparities, climate change, COVID and many other issues, this is the world we live in.
I never thought I’d see it so clearly in the USA.
It would be easy to make the case that social media is making us all not only more biased, but more irrational and impulsive.
Maybe it is time to turn it all off, and have an actual human to human conversation.