Let’s say you’re concerned about the country’s accelerating drift from reality. By reality, I mean a broad, baseline consensus about what’s true or likely to be true, and what’s false or likely to be false. Should you quit social media?
First, some preliminaries. Social media is not inherently evil. Even with its current warped system of incentives, it produces many fun and valuable results. I assume you know them firsthand. I myself have remained on LinkedIn because it’s a mostly nonsense-free zone that allows me to stay in touch with hundreds of my UT-Austin friends. Also, many small businessfolk can’t afford to jump off social media. I can’t imagine trying to start a business without some kind of presence there. And even if you avoid it, your business will be roped into social media through myriad review platforms (most of which are either useless or worse, but that’s another story).
Preliminary #2: There are abundant reasons to quit social media even if you don’t give a damn about what’s real. In 2018, computer scientist Jaron Lanier wrote a short book called Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now. Except for his claim that social media is making us less spiritual, Lanier’s arguments even then had become familiar. Essentially, Lanier claimed that social media, in exchange for a “free” communications platform, has turned its users into commodities, into marks. In the bargain, it has made them more anxious, less empathetic, more tribal, less authentic, crueler, and less capable of discerning or even caring about truth.
Like I said, it was mostly familiar stuff. But if anyone’s earned the right to sound the alarm, it’s Lanier. It was also trenchant and brief. In the four years since, I hadn’t read anything as scary until last week.
In “How Social Media Made America Stupid,” published in the May issue of The Atlantic, social psychologist Jonathan Haidt traces the anti-democratic decline of the U.S., the increase in mental health issues in children and teenagers, and what he calls the “structural stupidity” on both the left and the right to social media’s successful experiments in virality from 2009 to 2012, starting with Facebook’s “like” and Twitter’s “retweet” buttons.
Very quickly, Haidt writes, the rules of the game changed. With skill or luck, users could post something that instantly ricocheted around a hive of folks predisposed to like and share the post. What attracted the most likes and shares were what Haidt calls darts: Insults, ridicule, and censure, fueled by outrage. Virality became a sport and successful posts a form of entertainment, but with the added thrill of judgment. For millions, it was fun, unless you were on the receiving end. This blood sport prevails today, and Haidt thinks it’s likely to get worse.
There’s a great deal more to chew on in Haidt’s piece. It will repay your time to read the whole depressing thing. But I want to focus on social media’s effect on truth, and I’m going to ape Lanier’s cut-to-the-chase style and steal one of the most effective lures of social media mavens, the list.
1. Social media thrives on fakeness, pt. 1
Billions of social media accounts are not held by people. In the last quarter of 2021, Facebook deleted 1.8 billion fake accounts, but the bots keep coming. Bots undermine a platform’s credibility, but they also make the platform money by increasing its activity. Many of the “news” stories that outrage SM users and divert their attention from actual news are written by machines.
2. Social media thrives on fakeness, pt. 2
The platforms are performance spaces for users to present superficially attractive and cleverer versions of themselves.
3. Social media creates affinity mobs.
Affinity mobs – people who like and dislike the same things – value action over truth.
4. Social media multiplies the primacy of feelings over facts in shaping what we believe.
Much of what gets passed around on social media is calibrated to attract likes and shares, which research and common sense tell us are fueled by emotion.
5. Social media prioritizes radical brevity over accuracy.
Because virality is the coin of the realm and SM users’ attention is the coveted and scarce commodity, brevity is the new golden rule.
6. Social media was Donald Trump’s favorite tool of communication.
The most dishonest President in American history was a master.
Social media isn’t going anywhere, so I feel a little like the old man shaking his fist at the cloud. But people wiser and better informed than I am are making these same points. More importantly, some of them are also discussing technical and economic designs that wouldn’t make our country less democratic and stupider.
In the meantime, I’ll echo a famous old Republican: Just say no.