The other day, a friend of mine encountered an older man whose cat had wandered away. We have coyotes in our area, so he was desperate to find his lost pet. He had a flyer to post on telephone poles, and his children had suggested he use social media, but he didn’t know how. So, my friend agreed to take a picture of the flyer, post it in some local social media groups, and help out.
Immediately, anxiety crept in. These social media groups are generally fine, but they can go sideways in unexpected ways. For instance, in our town, the white Christmas lights downtown are, for reasons unknown, of two different hues — some are yellowish-white, while some are bright-white. This has fomented controversy. The venom in these discussions — about what this says about our tax dollars, our politics, our representatives, our town, and our culture — can be surprising.
So, my friend was rightfully nervous about posting this flyer. She was not unjustified in her concern, either, as soon some jolly sort decided to suggest that cats deserved to be eaten, while others openly judged the owner — a nice man whose wife had recently died and whose cat is, in a word, sneaky — as negligent.
Because these kinds of bad results are so common, instead of freely sharing information now on social media, we self-edit — not out of politeness or courtesy or social grace, but out of fear, anxiety, and concern for our welfare. Social media exposes us to others who won’t hesitate to judge us, project their own beliefs, and transmit their aggressions with abandon. After all, provocation and misinformation is promoted by social media algorithms, while good information is throttled. Some of the obnoxious responses we encounter are from bots, while some are from just nasty people. And something about the back-and-forth, asynchronous, newsfeed design seems to instill a need to dominate and “win” a thread or discussion, not to simply exchange information or come to a rational compromise. We’ve seen this from the early days in the OA debates in scholarly publishing, which was one thing. We’re seeing it now on a scale that is making nation-states vulnerable.
Therefore, I found it refreshing to hear someone outside our bubble talk about what a crock social media has been. In a recent interview on Brian Koppleman’s excellent podcast, “The Moment,” Mike Cooley of the band Drive-by Truckers, reflected on social media, and his refusal to embrace it (emphasis added to capture cadence):
I’ve never used Twitter, I don’t use Facebook, I don’t even use Instagram. . . . When I first heard about all this stuff, I was like, “That is the worst idea I think I’ve ever heard in my life.” You’re going to let human beings be able to communicate anything they can think of with each other all the time? Have you ever been around your family? Do you want to turn the entire world into your [expletive] family? That’s what you’re going to do with this. . . . It’s a terrible idea. Don’t let human beings get together and talk. How do you think wars get started?
Indeed, my personal feeling is that social media has been weaponized as part of Cold War 2.0, with Russia and others using social media to inflict damage on American society and US politics. Trump — whether just a showman, a knowing asset, or a useful idiot (or all three) — is making the most of it, using social media to intimidate Senators and others with the potential of a Presidential Twitter tirade, one which could ruin their political fortunes or be used against them at some crucial moment.
For its part, Twitter’s responses have been lackluster and scattershot, probably because it has at best a part-time CEO in Jack Dorsey, whose governance team seems to have no problem with him spending more time running Square, moving to Africa, and having an underperforming business.
Mark Zuckerberg recently underscored that he’s not going to do anything about the problems on his platform, saying Facebook will “stand up for free expression,” even if “it’s going to piss a lot of people off.” Of course, Zuckerberg extends “free expression” to include demonstrable lies. After all, a lie is just a form of expression.
His statements also show that he’s essentially brushing off all past criticism. And why shouldn’t he? Facebook is to 2020 what Ford Motor Company was to 1975.
In the 1960s, Ford Motor Company had a car called the Pinto, which had an annoying habit of bursting into flames when rear-ended. They knew this, but waited 8 years to make changes to the fuel system because their internal cost-benefit analyses showed it would cost them less to absorb the lawsuits than to make the changes. This meant that deaths were given a monetary value. At the time, this callous disregard for others was viewed as pure corporate evil.
In Facebook’s case, their behavior is just as egregious. They’ve learned that the FTC will fine them a few billion here, states will fine them a few hundred million there, and their stock will actually go up. The cost-benefit analysis clearly points toward the status quo. These fines, which seem large, amount to a dozen weeks of free cashflow and, in the case of the FTC fine, indemnification from past malfeasance. More perniciously, there are no images of fiery accidents to galvanize attention. Facebook’s information crimes are much harder to spot, are far more subtle.
Facebook attempts to cover its improprieties with fact-checking programs. Announcing yesterday the addition of Reuters, there are now eight such programs in place. And what have they done? Judd Legum of “Popular Information” asked the participants how many fact-checks they’d done. All but two responded, indicating a total of 302 fact-checks in January 2020, with nearly half done by a web site with two employees. The Associated Press conducted just a handful. With millions of pieces of content posted every day to more than 200 million users in the US and more than 2 billion worldwide, the result is that virtually nothing is fact-checked on Facebook. And Facebook spends very little on the activity, with Legum calculating that:
. . . Facebook’s total investment [in fact-checking services] in 2019 would be about $1.2 million. That’s an investment of 0.0016% of its 2019 revenue. For perspective, it takes Facebook about 9 minutes to bring in $1.2 million in revenue.
On top of this, Facebook’s environment is intimidating people from expressing themselves. This is the irony of Zuckerberg’s belief in “free expression” — done at scale, with few guardrails, with no meaningful moderation, and with a design that triggers and taunts, people are avoiding saying things, self-censoring even innocuous thoughts, and shutting down. The trolls are winning the information space thanks to social media.
Social media continues to be a burden on society, externalizing its costs to citizens around the world much as factories that used to pollute rivers externalized their costs to watersheds, waterfowl, and children drinking tainted water. We now live in the shadow of these misinformation factories, breathing their noxious fumes every day.
Or, to return to our initial vignette, when social started, we believed it was going to allow kind people to help neighbors find their lost cats. Then, Zuckerberg let in all the coyotes . . .