It’s high time we admitted that Facebook and Twitter are pernicious technologies. Those who doubt this haven’t taken stock of the last two years.
In Jan. 2018, an online firestorm broke out after social media users circulated a sound bite from Psychology professor Steven A. Pinker, in which he referred to the “highly literate, highly intelligent” alt-right. Though Pinker hardly intended flattery, he drew fire from the left as the “darling” of racists, while the far-right quickly made him out as a liberal, Jewish Uncle Tom.
Last August, Professor Kyle P. Quinn at the University of Arkansas and his wife began to fear for their safety when Twitter users, believing him to be one of the neo-Nazi marchers at Charlottesville, instigated a barrage of hate mail that included violent threats. When someone publicly tweeted his home address, Quinn and his wife had to go into hiding until the crusade against them subsided.
In Nov. 2016, the presidential election went to then-Republican nominee Donald Trump, though suspicions of Russian hacking mired the results. Since the election, news sources have reported the possibility that the Russian government activated several thousand fake social media profiles (like it was accused of doing in France) in order to influence the election through propaganda.
Commentators have yet to aggregate these and other incidents in a way that suggests a pattern. Although criticism of social media has waxed in recent years—as society has entered a stage of advanced interconnectivity—most of it has stayed the neoliberal course. The result has been a body of essays calling on individuals to police their own indulgent behaviors and framing overuse in pathological terms (so-called “Facebook Addiction Disorder,” for example). When confronted with quagmires like Pinker’s, the usual critics ignore the manifest disjunction between individual attitudes (which are often polite) and collective behaviors (which can contradict individuals’ behavioral tendencies). They also forfeit the possibility that social technologies stand to profit from our collective degeneracy. By locating the problem in our own weakness of will, these critics offer very little in the way of actual critical analysis.
Recently, some high-ranking members of the social media apparat have broken with the party line to express concern. Last winter, former Facebook vice president for user growth Chamath Palihapitiya announced that Facebook was providing the “tools that are ripping apart the social fabric.” Since then, early Facebook investor Roger McNamee published three articles deriding the company for its intended addictive quality and hands-off approach to fake news. McNamee even called on Facebook’s CEO, Mark E. Zuckerberg, to report before Congress for his company’s negligence.
McNamee and Palihapitiya are welcome to wage their crusades, but their calls for reform are ultimately toothless. Palihapitiya told listeners that when he left Facebook, he forbade his own children from creating accounts. That was all he could do. McNamee proposed a government investigation into Facebook’s reckless attitude toward misinformation, but he himself has since acknowledged the insufficiency of federal oversight.
This author offers an alternative to the usual incrementalism. Zuckerberg and his cohort should surrender their platforms.
In the present age of advanced technology, our laissez-faire attitude toward the digital lifeworld has left us with competing assessments of our technological circumstances. One view asserts that technology—like Kant’s “wit, judgment, and… talents”—is good or bad depending on its use. So it goes that if television broadcasts propaganda it is bad, and if it broadcasts Sesame Street, it is good. The second view, which differs only slightly, holds that technology can be neither good nor bad, as it is merely a medium. The episodes in Cambridge, Arkansas, and America at-large suggest that both of these views are lacking.
Marshall McLuhan, the Canadian media theorist, famously resolved this question with the formulation that “the medium is the message.” McLuhan meant that the vehicles through which content is transmitted have their own social effects, independent of what exactly they carry.
Television, according to this view, didn’t affect American households just by its sitcoms and dramas. The television itself inaugurated an era in which people read less because they could watch. It destroyed the sanctity of the dinner table by drawing the family to its evening programming. Thus, whether the monitor picked up the Muppets or Les Crane, social life was changed irrevocably.
Television has benefits, of course. A “bad” medium can still transmit “good” content or demonstrate “good” use. This has been a common talking point among social justice activists, who acknowledge that social media has made educating and mobilizing easier than ever. Yet a bad medium still corrupts. The rise of “slacktivism” has only become possible with platforms like Facebook and Twitter, which function entirely through optics, making it easy to look the part of an activist. We can’t take this to mean progress.
Until now, the extent of our criticism of social media has been to rearticulate the “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” philosophy: cut down on Facebook time, monitor children’s Twitter and Instagram access, only follow reputable pages. But the time for these individualistic efforts is long past when professors must flee their homes to avoid a mob.
The medium itself is rotten, facilitating a style of insurgent politics that exacerbates disagreement, scales misinformation, and robs users of focus. If Zuckerberg still reads The Crimson, he should take this as a friendly call to action: for the good of the culture, shut your platform down.
Henry N. Brooks ’19 is a Social Studies concentrator in Currier House. His column appears on alternate Tuesdays.
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