"Lipstick on Cancer"

Social media continues to erode societies, and accountability remains elusive

"Lipstick on Cancer"

In an interview with Neil Cavuto on Fox News (featured on the Pivot podcast), Scott Galloway, a professor of marketing at the New York University Stern School of Business, spooled out the problems caused by Facebook and its superstar executives in no uncertain terms:

[Sheryl Sandberg] . . . will go down in history as one of the most dangerous and damaging executives in the history of business. . . . You’ve heard the phrase ‘Lipstick on a pig’? Mark Zuckerberg and Sheryl Sandberg are lipstick on cancer. [Facebook] has been an organization that has trafficked in content or enabled content for ethnic cleansing; these are apps that make our teens depressed; this is a company that has run unfettered and killed other companies; this is company that because it refuses to screen content and do anything that gets in the way of its supernova business model has threatened democracies and elections. If these individuals weren’t so likable, they would have been out a long time ago, and district attorneys would be talking about bringing charges of criminal negligence against them.

While Galloway may sound harsh, he’s not wrong. Facebook has turned what we thought would be a cheerful waste of time into a toxic brew of behavior manipulation, psychological warfare, invasions of privacy, commercial sociopathy, and political unrest. The recent election outcome in Brazil adds to the evidence of social media (in this case, Facebook’s WhatsApp) contributing to the rise of authoritarian-curious politicians.

A recent study by the Oxford Internet Institute found that the amount of biased, hyperbolic and conspiratorial “junk news” in circulation is actually greater in 2018 than it was in 2016. We may have learned what is going on, but we’ve done very little about it. Twitter, YouTube, Facebook, and Google are operating in pretty much the same ways as before, but are now being exploited and manipulated by more people who have learned from the 2016 playbook.

It seems the abundance of information is at the root of the problem, with the first blush coming decades ago with the 24-hour news cycle. With so much information competing for attention, fragmentation was part of the solution. You needed more buckets to catch all the water. Fragment information, and you fragment the audience. Do this on a large enough scale and with enough purpose, and you fragment a population. Later in the same podcast, Kara Swisher followed up with this criticism of more traditional media that began the modern distortion of the world:

I think Fox News has done more to bring this culture and country down than any media organization in history. I think we will look back on this and say, ‘Rupert Murdoch has really done damage to the soul of this country by inflaming people and bringing out our worst tendencies.’

In short, the media space has become more fragmented, poisonous, and less humane than we want. By a long shot. “Disruption” has led to the rise of digital authoritarianism in multiple nations, including the world’s most powerful; fragmented media ripe for exploitation by malefactors of all sorts; social divides that will take years to heal, if they heal at all; and psychological damage that may ultimately rival that you’d expect from a global crisis.

If there were a worse time to be advocating for less curation, less editorial rigor, more rapid publication of early drafts, and more access for everyone without paying for improvements to everything else, I’d hate to see it.

We should tread carefully for the foreseeable future.

Today is election day in the US, where citizens will perhaps show their independence from the media manipulation that has become routine and tragically inescapable. The last general election was severely distorted because social media was leveraged by hostile foreign powers and their accomplices to affect the outcome, while Fox News provided partisan cheerleading that exploited fear and doubt.

Social media has morphed from a new form of entertainment into a behavior modification system designed exploit your emotions for someone else’s profit or benefit. The 24-hour news cycle is a drumbeat calling to our worst selves.

Whatever you do today, I’d recommend staying off social media and avoiding the news until the dust settles. You’ll vote more rationally if you’re in the US, and you’ll have a nicer day overall wherever you are. It might even become a healthy habit.

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