today’s social media is literally killing us
Ralph Mitchell wouldn’t leave his house in Molalla, Oregon despite the threat posed by the steady encroachment of wildfires. He wasn’t afraid of the fires you see, what he was afraid of were roaming squads of Antifa super-soldiers setting the state ablaze according to Facebook and texts from his friends. His story isn’t unique. Flooded with angry calls, law enforcement agencies had to step in to announce that the only place where arsonists were torching the American West was social media, and that while people have been arrested for potentially starting fires, there was no proof of ideological ties and the majority of flames were caused by lightning and carelessness.
Even worse, these rumors were just a rehash of far-right trolls on social media pretending that fires which devastated Australia earlier this year were a conspiracy by eco-terrorists and George Soros to ban mining, beef, suburbs, and cars. This is where we are. Hoaxes debunked in great detail only nine months ago clumsily repeated mad libs style for the exact same kind of disaster were still circulated widely by credulous paranoiacs who refuse to listen to anything outside their hermetically sealed echo chambers. Try to drop opposing links and facts in those spaces and you’ll be kicked out and banned within hours, if not minutes, your references dismissed as lies and deleted.
Sounds bad? Well, we haven’t even gotten to the really awful stuff like allowing groups linked to domestic terrorism to use social media for recruitment and coordination, ignoring calls to outright genocide in Myanmar and Ethiopia, and having corporate board members wine and dine neo-Nazis who advocate ethnically cleansing the West, then bankrolling their plans to use AI in the effort. If that’s not enough, consider a policy of inaction when governments use social media to spread hateful propaganda and lies to sway elections, and that after reading enough posts and watching enough videos, some users are considering family suicide if their preferred candidate doesn’t win.
how did we get here?
The very tools that were originally conceived as a way for humanity to inform each other and lower barriers to civil debate and understanding are now being abused to demonize those who voice opposing ideas as Satanic cannibal pedophiles, pretend that a pandemic raging across the world is a sinister hoax, inject ever more absurd conspiracies into public discourse by hijacking recommendation algorithms, and scamming the gullible and vulnerable. Few countries seem immune to this blight. If anything, conspiracies now have an even easier time crossing borders and cultures, forcing governments across the world to try and address imaginary problems at the expense of letting real ones fester.
We’ve talked about how this happened in great detail multiple times, but we can boil it down to the simple matter of greed, laziness, and humans being terrible with no consequences for their bad behavior. Set in the broader context of enormous economic and social upheaval, increased isolation and decreased empathy, and parasitic wealth inequality, platforms like Facebook become high pressure cookers with no safety valve. People’s frustration with their situations and a lack of power to change them become rage and conspiracy theories, and tools to spread this anger to the rest of the world on an impulse just makes the creation of tribalist cesspools almost inevitable.
Now, ideally, social media would rise to the challenge. It would shut down pages and groups which traffic dangerous disinformation and conspiracies, fact check articles and posts which straddle the line, publicly out purveyors of fake news and expose when governments use their platforms to manipulate elections or promote violence while shutting down the accounts at fault. To an extent, these things are happening, but only after major public outcry, and even then, just enough to say they’re doing something. Worse yet, Facebook – the absolute worst offender in all of this by far — is highly selective, partisan, and cash-driven with its fact checks, and will remove them should the right people complain.
why does the problem keep getting worse?
You’d think that by this point, someone would’ve stepped in to play the adult in the room and implemented real changes to address this out of control spiral of misinformation and hate. Yet nothing seems to be happening. Why? Well, the sad fact is that there are no consequences for social media platforms making money off our misery, or not bothering to actually inform us, or refusing to take a stance for the truth. People still log on, interact, and get tracked by software that floods their timelines with ads, so the companies still make money, and despite the many calls to fix what they’ve become, their stock prices and revenues keep rising so there’s really no incentive to change.
From the platforms’ standpoint, there’s no reason to fix something that isn’t broken. We’re the broken ones and because they don’t really care what we do and say as long as our traffic hits their servers, they’ll happily make money from us taking our constantly refueled rage out on each other after protracted bouts of nursing our confirmation biases. And why not? No one is holding them to any standard other than quarterly returns, and unless the majority of large institutional investors start dumping billions worth of stock, that’s not going to change. In the meantime, ever lonelier, angrier, and isolated older generations and self-radicalized extremists unleash torrents of fake news and conspiracies to stoke the lucrative fires of hatred.
Over the long term, this situation may resolve itself. Younger generations, especially Gen Z, are becoming extremely good at filtering out fake news and scrutinizing links. As boomers diminish in numbers over the next decade and a half, the majority of social media use will be dominated by skeptical, battle-scarred millennials and zoomers who know and understand how to use the platforms to stop the flow of misinformation and train them to propagate more trustworthy content. But the real question is whether we can afford to wait that long. Let’s not forget about terrorists and genocidaires using social media to foment violence and bitter political divisions, advocating wholesale slaughter of their fellow citizens.
Having another decade to go wild with few checks other than the occasional public outcry isn’t exactly healthy for world’s long-term health and will fuel the rise of countless far right populists who believe that igniting violent political turmoil is their best path to power. This is exactly how the Nazis did it, by provoking riots, then claiming they’re the only ones who could protect the public from “far-left radicals trying to destroy the nation.” If we just wait and hope for the best, we’d be giving today’s fascists and ethno-supremacists dozens of chances to repeat them same feat but with the power of modern communication networks to unleash their monstrous plans on the world at the speed of light.