We love to hate the media but it’s social media we should be concerned about, writes Danyl Mclauchlan.
This piece was originally published on December 9, 2018
About halfway through Before Sunrise – a 1990s romantic comedy that has the same significance for Gen-Xers as the Vietnam war did to the Boomers and Harry Potter does for Millennials – Jessie and Celine, who are adrift in Vienna overnight, fall in love by talking about the things they hate. Mid-rant Celine declares, “I hate that the media, you know, they are trying to control our minds. It‘s very subtle, but you know, it‘s a new form of fascism.”
Jesse appears confused by this statement – or maybe that’s just Ethan Hawke’s resting face – but as a twentysomething in the 90s I knew exactly what Celine was talking about. The media sucked. Noam Chomsky said so; so did Naomi Klein. Both demigods of fin de siecle progressivism. Almost everyone I knew felt the same way: if people knew the Truth about what was really happening in the world, we all agreed, instead of all the mainstream media’s bullshit and propaganda and lies, everything would be so much better.
And, like a lot of stuff I believed back in the day this turned out to be … not completely wrong: some of those media critiques were valid, but it was not even slightly informed by a consideration of what was important and valuable about the mainstream media, virtues that seem more obvious now that the entire industry is disintegrating. (My broader lesson from this is that if you focus on “the ruthless criticism of everything that exists” then of course everything seems terrible and worthy of contempt, but just as you don’t burn your house down when the roof leaks, it’s worth understanding the benefits and values of existing institutions and norms before cheering on their destruction.)
Because the mainstream media, as it turns out, was not so much “a new form of fascism” but a gatekeeper helping prevent the re-emergence of a very familiar form of fascism. The decline of traditional media due to massive, ongoing technological disruption isn’t delivering a golden age of truth or social justice or “creative communities”, as Naomi Klein always described her strategically vague post-capitalist world, but the opposite of all those things. I don’t think anyone fully understands the convergence of forces behind the global revival of authoritarianism and ethnic nationalism – Hannah Arendt has this great line about the “subterranean streams of history” suddenly rising up to the surface, and that’s how global politics feels right now – but the death of traditional media at the hands of social media sure seems to be part of what’s happening.
The social media critic and writer Jaron Lanier – author of Ten Arguments for Deleting your Social Media Accounts Right Now, a book that distils down into one argument: that social media is destroying our mental health, capacity for empathy and shared understanding of the world, and by extension our entire society – suggests drawing a circle around the problem. There are countless social media critiques out there but they tend towards a mixture of sanctimony, contrarianism and anti-technological conservatism. The problem is not technology, Lanier argues – he’s is a virtual reality pioneer; he loves technology – the problem isn’t even the idea of social media. The problem is the business model that underlies social media as it currently exists. It’s a model that relies on platforms algorithmically modifying the behaviour of their users to maximise their engagement. Everything terrible flows from that.
What does Lanier mean? Let’s take an example. Say you’re a hypothetical 13-year-old creating a new account on Facebook or Instagram. Or, because this isn’t a generational problem, you could just as easily be a 60-year-old only now exploring the digital world. Doesn’t matter. Once you start using the application – friending people, liking things, clicking on links – the algorithms curating your feed have three priorities: increase the amount of time you use the application, because that exposes you to more advertising; increase the amount of data you supply, because that makes it easier to target the right kind of ads at you; increase the amount of posts you write for other users to read and respond to, because having a vast army of workers generating content for free is the basis for the entire model.
How do the algorithms maximise engagement? The sociologist Zeynep Tufekci describes what happens when you create a new account on Youtube (owned by Google) and start clicking on content. If you watch a Trump rally it’ll recommend white supremacist material. If you watch Democratic Party content it’ll steer you towards 911 conspiracy theories. If you watch information about jogging it’ll serve up content on ultramarathons. What’s happening in the background is that the algorithm places the new user in a bin, a statistical category of users, then looks at people in adjacent bins who have roughly the same demographic profile but are far more engaged. It then curates their content feed to modify their beliefs and behaviour, shifting them towards the high engagement bins, making them a more valuable user.
What kind of behaviour modification increases your value as a target demographic? It varies. Some people really love cats and will watch and share an awful lot of adorable cat content. But disproportionately it’s being angry and scared and outraged. These emotions increase ad engagement, data harvesting, content creation. If you’re one of our hypothetical new users and you click on information about environmentalism or parenthood, then the algorithm will serve up anti-1080 content or anti-vaccination content if that’s what transforms you into a more engaged user and thus a better revenue stream.
Educated elites tend to dismiss anti-vaxers et al as ignorant morons but, having clicked on a few anti-vax and 1080 links and seen my feeds light up with torrents of false news stories and pseudo-scientific testimonials by fake doctors, I’m a lot more sympathetic and inclined to view them as curious and inquisitive people who’ve had a firehose of bullshit pouring into their brains for months, or even years, purely because that’s what grows Facebook’s share value.
Media has always tailored content to reach desirable demographics, and most marketing is aimed at behaviour change: they want you to buy their stuff, after all. But when you watched TV it wasn’t watching you back, using the camera on your device to track your facial expressions and using that data to make you a more frightened, anxious person; it wasn’t recording your conversations and serving up ads based on keyword matches; your newspaper wasn’t harvesting information about you and personally tailoring its headlines to make you buy more newspapers. It definitely wasn’t making you so confused and angry that you voluntarily wrote the newspaper itself, for free.
None of this a conspiracy, Lanier points out. It’s just an unfortunate convergence of technology and capitalism and psychology and mathematics. An article recently published in PNAS studied the virality of half a million tweets and “observed that the presence of moral-emotional words in messages increased their diffusion by a factor of 20% for each additional word”. The most impactful words were: “Attack, Bad, Blame, Care, Destroy, Fight, Hate, Kill, Murder, Peace, Safe, Shame, Terrorism, War, Wrong.”
Things become conspiratorial when groups who were largely excluded from traditional media, or whose ideas were challenged and refuted by credible experts, or who are just bad actors – radical groups, criminal organisations, the intelligence services of authoritarian states, the President of the United States – realise the old media that fact-checked and discriminated against bigotry and disinformation is dying and that the bold new media environment actively selects for and promotes their content. The 20th century media model wasn’t perfect but there were aspirations to fairness and accuracy and objectivity and balance, and to holding the powerful to account. None of those aspirations exist at all in the social media model and it’s becoming apparent that liberal democracies probably don’t function without them.
Normally when a corporation starts to, you know, destroy society, there’s media coverage and a political response. And the mainstream media has been diligently documenting Facebook’s many outrages and the terrible impact all of these applications have on the mental health of their users. But the media has so much less reach than it used to, because it’s being wiped out by companies like Facebook – and companies like Facebook do not, unsurprisingly, promote stories about their tax avoidance, negative impact on democracy, link to depression and anxiety, their implication in ethnic cleansing in Myanmar or their role as a tool of Russian Intelligence to undermine democracy around the world.
Political parties are cautious to move against these companies – although events overseas are forcing politicians in other jurisdictions to at least pretend to care – because they all rely on social media for their marketing and message testing and direct voter contact. Our major parties have more digital media advisers and content creators than press secretaries.
They’re stuck in a low equilibrium trap in which they all need social media because they all compete with each other to communicate their messages to voters, and all their competitors are on Facebook, and Instagram, and Twitter. So are a majority of progressive activists – the people who would normally coordinate boycotts and petitions and call for inquiries and legislation. There’s still an entrenched perception in those circles that the mainstream media is evil – viz Celine in Before Sunrise – and a huge amount of activist energy is devoted to social media call-outs of mainstream media stories, all of which adds more value to the tax-avoiding, anti-democratic, hate-speech and disinformation disseminating, traditional media-annihilating multibillion-dollar titans of Silicon Valley.
So what do we do? Ten Arguments for Deleting your Social Media Accounts Right Now does not have a surprising or unexpected conclusion. And if you ever ask yourself what you can do to make to make the world a better place, deleting your accounts is probably a good place to start. Not all of us can do that, though. Some people need those accounts for work, or to promote their writing, or art, or whatever. Some people think its still an important platform for activism, despite its flaws: maybe gamergate and the alt-right are just the price you pay for #MeToo and Black Lives Matter? And, when I was denouncing social media at Litcrawl a few weeks ago a friend pointed out that it was easy for me to just log off: I didn’t live alone. I had actual people in my house to talk to. And social media’s addictive! I’ve lost count of my attempts to quit Twitter.
My suggestion is that you pick one company. Maybe it’s Google, which is the most useful, but also the most sinister in terms of its commitment to surveillance capitalism; maybe it’s Twitter, which is arguably the worst for your mental health; maybe it’s Facebook which is arguably just the worst, a company that keeps promising to do better but never does. And once you’ve picked it, stop generating content for that company. Don’t update your status. Don’t Instagram your meals. Don’t “like” stuff. Make a time to check your account once a week, or once a day instead of flicking through your stream whenever you’re bored. Carry a book.
“Your data is labour,” Lanier explains, and he’s right. When we angry-face emoji content we’re giving away information about our psychological status to corporations that are so proficient at monetising it they’ve built themselves into some of the most profitable companies in the history of capitalism in just a handful of years (and also Twitter). Get your news from mainstream media sites. I’m not pretending they’re perfect – the Herald seems to run “breaking news” stories about Madeleine McCann roughly once a day – but there’s valuable work being done by great journalists across the traditional media, and the garbage and clickbait helps subsidise it. A recent study conducted by universities in Arizona and Texas demonstrated that the less you trust the traditional media the more likely you are to be fooled by fake news. Unconditional media scepticism makes us dumber, not smarter. Believing that the media is trying to control your mind makes you more vulnerable to the new platforms that are literally controlling your mind.
Back in the early 1960s Marshall McLuhan – one of the prophets of the digital age – wrote:
We are as far today into the electric age as the Elizabethans had advanced into the typographic and mechanical age. And we are experiencing the same confusions and indecisions which they had felt when living simultaneously in two contrasted forms of society and experience.
The disruptive media technologies of the Elizabethan era helped plunge Europe into centuries of warfare and religious genocide, so the prospect that we’re only at the beginning of such a phase is pretty grim. The Elizabethans couldn’t opt out of movable type, or mass literacy or the Reformation, any more than we can opt out of the digital revolution. But we’re not powerless: these companies are so ubiquitous and untouchable and unavoidable because “everyone” is on them, but all of that goes away – hopefully, possibly, to be replaced by something better – if we’re all just not on them any more.
The Spinoff Weekly compiles the best stories of the week – an essential guide to modern life in New Zealand, emailed out on Monday evenings.