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Book Review

The Social Media Peril — Part I

Anti-Social Media: How Facebook Disconnects Us and Undermines Democracy, Siva Vaidhyanathan

The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power, Shoshana Zuboff

Zucked: Waking Up to the Facebook Catastrophe, Roger McNamee

Almost no one had a worse year in 2018 than Donald Trump — various of his cronies were indicted and on their way to prison, serious new investigations sprang up like weeds, and the President’s party suffered a resounding defeat in the mid-term elections. Despite all that, Donald Trump missed the prize for the worst 2018. No, that dubious honor belongs to Facebook.

In fact, at the close of last year, Wired magazine ran an article titled “The 21 (and Counting) Biggest Facebook Scandals of 2018.” Among the article’s low lights:

  • February 2018: Special counsel Robert Mueller’s indictment of Russian trolls reveals the role Facebook played in Russia’s plot to influence the 2016 election.
  • March 2018: The United Nations cites Facebook’s role in the slaughter of Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar.
  • March 2018: the Cambridge Analytica story makes front page news — eventually revealing that it misappropriated the data of 87 million users.
  • June 2018: The New York Times revealed that Facebook shared users’ data with device companies including Apple, Amazon, Microsoft, and Blackberry.
  • July 2018: Facebook tells Congress it had special data arrangements — sharing the personal data of users and their friends — with dozens of companies, including a Russian internet giant with close ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin.
  • August 2018: Facebook shuts down a network of Iranian troll accounts and pages that had been posing as US and UK citizens.
  • September 2018: the ACLU says Facebook ads let employers favor men over women. Earlier, Facebook faced similar charges that it allowed landlords to place housing ads that excluded minorities.
  • November 2018: A New York Times investigation alleges Facebook — and more specifically, Sheryl Sandberg — tried to cover up the Russia scandal and ordered opposition research on George Soros.

2019 hasn’t started any better. In what was widely described as a “scathing report,” a British parliamentary committee detailed in mid-February Facebook’s privacy and disinformation failures and called for aggressive government regulation of social media platforms. Just a week earlier, German authorities ruled that only if users give explicit consent can the company use customer data from other apps and websites to help target ads on Facebook — a move widely thought to strike a serious blow to the company’s business model.

All of which makes unsurprising that we’ve recently been treated to three (quite) different books assessing Facebook and its failures in depth. They are:

  • Anti-Social Media: How Facebook Disconnects Us and Undermines Democracy, by Siva Vaidhyanathan, a professor of media studies at the University of Virginia and, previously, a journalist.
  • The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power, by Shoshana Zuboff, a trained social scientist, and the Charles Edward Wilson Professor Emerita at the Harvard Business School.
  • Zucked: Waking Up to the Facebook Catastrophe, by Roger McNamee, a long-time and prominent Silicon Valley venture capitalist — and early Facebook investor.

Each of these books has its particular strengths and weaknesses. Together, they paint a damning picture of Facebook and its dangers. In the process, they also provide a cautionary tale about the perils of artificial intelligence. The balance of this piece — Part I — briefly reviews Anti-Social Media. Parts II and III in this series review The Age of Surveillance Capitalism and Zucked in more depth.

In Anti-Social Media, Vaidhyanathan’s overarching theme is that Facebook has both dumbed down, and corrupted, social discourse — making the deliberation on which democracy depends less and less possible. He provides a litany of particulars. To start, Facebook makes it difficult to distinguish truth from falsehood, giving every item and source in one’s news feed equal weight. More seriously, Facebook weights one’s feed toward the items its AI determines are most likely to “engage” us, thereby maximizing our time on site, and our potential to click on one of its advertisements. Unfortunately, what tends to maximize our engagement are the very things that most upset us.

Extremism will generate both positive and negative reactions, or “engagements.” Facebook measures engagement by the number of clicks, “likes,” shares, and comments. This design feature—or flaw, if you care about the quality of knowledge and debate—ensures that the most inflammatory material will travel the farthest and the fastest. Sober, measured accounts of the world have no chance on Facebook. And when Facebook dominates our sense of the world and our social circles, we all potentially become carriers of extremist nonsense.

Over time, Facebook’s (AI enabled) ability to give us more and more of what we have previously given our attention to creates an individual filter bubble — narrowing our field of vision and potentially creating echo chambers of reinforced belief.

Filter bubbles distance us from those who differ from us or generally disagree with us, while the bias toward sensationalism and propagandistic content undermines trust. In these ways, Facebook makes it harder for diverse groups of people to gather to conduct calm, informed, productive conversations.

There is much more in Anti-Social Media, of course. Nevertheless, the book suffers from the sense that an academic is trying to be temperate in his language and judicious in his judgments — when what is called for is outrage, pure and simple. Still, even for Vaidhyanathan, the outrage occasionally (sort of) breaks through:

If you wanted to build a machine that would distribute propaganda to millions of people, distract them from important issues, energize hatred and bigotry, erode social trust, undermine journalism, foster doubts about science, and engage in massive surveillance all at once, you would make something a lot like Facebook.

Yep, sounds like outrage.

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