In “Antisocial Media,” University of Virginia professor Siva Vaidhyanathan gives a full and rigorous accounting of Facebook’s sins. Much of the criticism will be familiar to anyone who has been following the news about the company. What distinguishes the book is Vaidhyanathan’s skill in putting the social media phenomenon into a broader context — legal, historical and political.
He explains, for instance, why our discussions of data privacy have been so arid. Because the American view of privacy has been shaped by the Fourth Amendment’s prohibition of “unreasonable searches and seizures,” we tend to see privacy in narrowly legalistic terms: What we do in secret is protected from prying eyes; what we do in public is open to examination. Now that the personal information people once kept in closets and file cabinets circulates through vast corporate clouds, the old legal distinction has been erased. Everything is subject to inspection.
Lost in the legalistic view is any sense of the ethical consequences of going through life under constant surveillance. We don’t consider that being watched, parsed and classified may be antithetical to human dignity. Our blindness to privacy’s moral dimension suits Facebook and other social networks. They can address privacy concerns through arcane contractual language and endless checkboxes, reducing the subject to a matter of consumer choice. We come to see privacy as something to be traded for apps and amusements.
Vaidhyanathan’s criticism is sharp but even-handed. He debunks some of the more extreme claims about the influence of social media on public opinion. He finds little evidence to support the popular idea that online voter-manipulation schemes run by outside agents had a decisive influence on the outcome of the Brexit vote in Britain or the 2016 U.S. presidential election.
But Facebook and its ilk are nonetheless debasing politics, he argues. The messages that grab the most attention on social media are tightly targeted, highly charged appeals to emotion, not reasoned arguments. It’s no longer necessary for a candidate to offer “a general vision of government or society.” In an era of brute-force micro-messaging, partisanship trumps statesmanship, pandering trumps policymaking. Facebook is “the worst possible forum through which we could conduct our politics,” laments Vaidhyanathan. But it is the forum to which we have flocked.
The problem is compounded by Facebook’s practice of dedicating staff members to political campaigns to ensure that candidates use its data and ads in the most effective ways possible. Vaidhyanathan argues that Facebook’s “embedded” consultants played a particularly central role in crafting Donald Trump’s online advertising during the 2016 presidential race. They steered the campaign toward the kind of inflammatory, visually striking messages that stir passions and get widely shared throughout the network. Facebook profited by selling more ads, and Trump profited by attracting more votes, more volunteers and more contributions. Through this “confluence of interests,” Vaidhyanathan posits, Trump gained a considerable advantage.
“Antisocial Media” is not a hopeful book. Vaidhyanathan doesn’t think Facebook can be reformed from within, however many times CEO Mark Zuckerberg apologizes and promises to do better. “The problem with Facebook is Facebook,” he writes. It’s not just that the company makes its money by pimping its members to advertisers. It’s that the network is now so immense that it has become impossible to weed out the scoundrels and creeps until after they’ve done their damage. “Facebook,” Vaidhyanathan concludes, “is too big to tame.” The company will always be cleaning up messes, begging our forgiveness.
If “Antisocial Media” is scholarly in tone, Jaron Lanier’s “Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now” is cheeky. Lanier, a computer scientist who has become one of Silicon Valley’s best-known apostates, aims to convince us that Facebook, Twitter and other such platforms are so deeply corrupt, their effects so personally and socially destructive, that we need to ditch them, and fast. “Quitting entirely is the only option for change,” he writes.
Lanier sees social media as a manipulative system that demeans everyone it ensnares. The more information about ourselves we feed into it, the better it gets at steering our thoughts and opinions. The essential business of a company like Facebook, he argues, is behavior modification. Not only does it harvest incredibly detailed data about individuals’ habits and preferences, but it also runs myriad experiments aimed at determining which messages and other stimuli are most likely to grab attention, elicit strong reactions and trigger compulsive consumption of information. Needless to say, these kinds of sophisticated techniques for psychological engineering are extremely valuable to advertisers that want to sell us goods. They’re equally valuable to political operatives, legitimate or otherwise, who want to shape our views.
Because the techniques are hidden from us — the companies treat their algorithms as trade secrets — we’re rarely conscious of the ways we’re being manipulated. As the software exerts ever more influence over what we see and how we think, we begin to lose our free will and even our sense of individuality. Unable to think for ourselves, we drift toward tribalism. Giving in to one of the more primal forces of human nature, we establish our identity by subscribing to groupthink and pillorying those with different ideas.
Missing from social media, Lanier suggests, are the “public spaces” of the physical world, where the presence of others reveals similarities that transcend differences. That sense of shared humanity, essential to a decent society, is lost when people are reduced to streams of messages and images. Even when we go out into public spaces today, Lanier observes, we are often gazing at our screens, not our surroundings.
Although given to windiness, Lanier is an astute critic, able to see things others miss. But his analysis is distorted by a flawed assumption. He views the problems of social media as “blessedly specific,” resulting from Facebook’s and Google’s reliance on personalized advertising to make money. By closing our social media accounts, he contends, we’ll give Silicon Valley an opportunity “to improve itself” — to retool its business in a socially responsible way. That’s a cheery notion, but it’s naive to think that, if we just hit the reset button, Silicon Valley will reform itself and right its wrongs.
Social media’s problems stem not just from Internet companies’ business strategies but from the technologies the companies use and venerate. By turning all types of information into the digits of binary code, computer networks encourage the consolidation of once-diverse media into data empires of unprecedented scope and power. And the very design of smartphones and apps, research shows, saps us of the patience and attentiveness we need to evaluate the meaning and worth of the information pulsing through our screens.
As Lanier acknowledges, the tendency of digital media to promote emotionalism, diminish thoughtfulness and undermine civil discourse was already in evidence when people first began conversing online in the 1970s, long before the ads showed up. When people talk in person, eye to eye, they naturally feel a kinship, even if they disagree with each other. That fellow-feeling tempers distrust and encourages courtesy. When those same conversations take place in the sterile realm of the computer screen, they are much more likely to deteriorate into angry name-calling and one-upmanship. The technology itself brings out what Lanier calls our “inner troll.”
We can’t separate Silicon Valley’s business interests from its tools, nor can we trust entrepreneurs and venture capitalists to remedy complex social ailments. Even if the public were to stage a mass exodus from social media, Internet companies would, if left to their own devices, construct new communication systems and media empires with similar defects. They’d probably invent better ways to bewitch us.
It’s moot, anyway. Barring a radical cultural shift, it’s hard to imagine many people heeding Lanier’s call and deleting their social media accounts. As the past year has shown, even those who profess outrage over social media’s depredations go right on using Facebook and Twitter, Snapchat and YouTube. It’s not so much that they’re addicts (though they may be). It’s that social networking is now woven into their friendships, their jobs, their spare time, their very sense of self. By abandoning social media, they would exile themselves from society.
The most revealing moment in “Antisocial Media” comes when Vaidhyanathan describes his own online habits. Despite his comprehensive understanding of Facebook’s ill effects, he has been a loyal and largely happy member of the network for more than a decade. “As much as anyone in the world I have lived my life through Facebook,” he confesses. “Facebook has been the operating system of my life.” As to the future: “I have no plans to resign.”
The problem with Facebook is not just Facebook. It is also us.
How Facebook Disconnects Us and Undermines Democracy
By Siva Vaidhyanathan
Oxford. 276 pp. $24.95
Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now
By Jaron Lanier
Henry Holt. 160 pp. $18