I’ve been a user of social media for more than 10 years and I was among the first to write about its potential long before there were social media products. The original research on 5 degrees of separation and the Kevin Bacon game that illustrated the power of social networking fascinated me. I started writing about it and even wrote a paper in about 2002-03 that called for social networking and analytics to become part of the CRM suite. I was a fan of James Surowiecki’s classic, “The Wisdom of Crowds” and thought that was a prescription for settling many tricky research questions. But now nearly 20 years later, I’m dismayed by what social media has become and I find myself calling for its abolition.
Ok, social media isn’t going anywhere. The freedom of speech embedded in western democracies will ensure that even to the point that social media is eroding the very freedom of discourse that supports it. But that only places more responsibility on each of us to ensure that this class of products is used appropriately and not as a force for evil.
Revelations about Russian social media use to worsen domestic political arguments among Americans and influence political discourse leaves me shaken. But so does the advertising model and profit motive that drives it. They’re really two sides of the same coin. Social media’s primary product is the user and the products do a great job of gathering crowd data and statistically analyzing it to feed recommendations back to advertisers. It is not wrong to say that we are enabling it to help in force-feeding the consumer culture.
Surely there must be a higher calling for the great technology that we’ve midwifed in the last few decades?
A tsunami of negative press is evolving about social media and the ways Russian intelligence services subverted it to sway America during the last election cycle and even today. I am not using any weasel words to suggest that Russian intelligence purportedly or ostensibly hacked the election. The election scandal walks like a duck and it quacks and with two sources of verification I’m calling it. For back-up the Mueller team issued a 37-page indictment against 10 people and 3 organizations alleging it.
Consider a recent New York Times article, “To Stir Discord in 2016, Russians Turned Most Often to Facebook” by Sheera Frenkel and Katie Benner. It says in part,
In 2014, Russians working for a shadowy firm called the Internet Research Agency started gathering American followers in online groups focused on issues like religion and immigration. Around mid-2015, the Russians began buying digital ads to spread their messages. A year later, they tapped their followers to help organize political rallies across the United States.
The social media instruments of choice? Facebook and its photo-sharing cousin, Instagram.
Facebook and Instagram were mentioned 41 times in the 37 page indictment which charged the Russians with “executing a scheme to subvert the 2016 election and support Donald J. Trump’s presidential campaign.”
Now, Facebook and all the other social networks are not charged with any wrong-doing; they are, at least for now, the unwitting dupes of a sophisticated and well-planned effort. Fine, I get it. My dis-ease with Facebook (and Twitter) was summed up well by Jonathan Albright, research director at Columbia University’s Tow Center for Digital Journalism who is quoted in the Times article saying,
“Facebook built incredibly effective tools which let Russia profile citizens here in the U.S. and figure out how to manipulate us,” Mr. Albright said. “Facebook, essentially, gave them everything they needed.”
If that’s true, and it seems hard to dispute, can social networking tools be unquestioningly used for good ever again? Are they, like fire arms, inherently dangerous and only capable of one use?
Call me bad names if you wish but as bad as that is, it is the thought that the big social networks like Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and others as well as Google and Amazon all capture a raft of information about us for the purpose of force feeding us things that advertisers desperately want to sell.
How effective are their tools and techniques? A separate article, also from the Times, shows a small sample of the online ads that the Russians used during the election that pick at the scabs of our society.
There’s one designed to fan Southern animosity using a Civil War theme,
There are also ads that tell African Americans not to bother voting or that suggest that the white government is against them. Another showing a picture of Hillary Clinton with an X across it and the caption “Hillary Clinton is the co-author of Obama’s anti-police and anti-Constitutional propaganda.” It goes on and on.
You don’t have to like Clinton or Trump to understand that these things erode our democracy because they make it harder to have dialog between opposing parties and without dialog there is no compromise. But by extension, if social media can be successfully used against us in an election, and Facebook admits that such ads reached 150 million Americans during the 2016 election, this stuff can and is being turned against all of us in every day commerce.
They’re still at it,
Another article in the Times (Feb 19, 2018) “After Florida School Shooting, Russian ‘Bot’ Army Pounced” by Sheera Frenkel and Daisuke Wakabayashi offered this chilling summary,
One hour after news broke about the school shooting in Florida last week, Twitter accounts suspected of having links to Russia released hundreds of posts taking up the gun control debate.
The accounts addressed the news with the speed of a cable news network. Some adopted the hashtag #guncontrolnow. Others used #gunreformnow and #Parklandshooting. Earlier on Wednesday, before the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., many of those accounts had been focused on the investigation by the special counsel Robert S. Mueller III into Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election.
The bots owners don’t care which side of any debate they take and seem to prefer running both sides to ensure divisive reactions. Karen North, a social media professor at the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism summarized the situation,
The bots are “going to find any contentious issue, and instead of making it an opportunity for compromise and negotiation, they turn it into an unsolvable issue bubbling with frustration. It just heightens that frustration and anger.”
Mostly I am disappointed that social networking isn’t really living up to what we envisioned. It’s a realization of social networking that each of us, according to the theory, is no more than 5 touches from any other person on the planet and for most connections it’s fewer. It’s ironic that social networking might now be preventing us from freely communicating.
The practical application of social networking has to do with Dunbar’s Number. Robin Dunbar was a British anthropologist who observed that humans can maintain stable social relationships with about 150 other humans. The number puts a practical limit on all kinds of things that depend on close relationships. For instance a military company is comprised of not more than 150 individuals for reasons of cohesion. The company is the building block of all military units because every member has every other member’s back and they all know it because they have personal relationships.
In the middle ages, monasticism spread for similar reasons. Civilization was saved in Western Europe because whenever a monastery grew above Dunbar’s number, extra members were sent out to establish another miles away. This happened naturally mind you, not because someone had an algorithm but because organizations just got too big for comfort.
Social networking today has blown up Dunbar’s number. While I wouldn’t suggest that I can have anything like a relationship with the few thousand poor souls who follow me, I can at least keep them interested by occasionally flicking off a crumb of my existence for their consumption. But it’s pointless and all indications are that it’s harmful for multiple reasons to the body politic.
So I’ve quit Facebook. Actually, they don’t let you quit, they deactivate your account so that you can come back. I really hope I don’t back slide though. I never got much from facebook and the harm it does to society weighs heavily on me. I’m just one person with an opinion but it would be wonderful if other people did the same.
(Cross-posted @ Beagle Research Group)