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Book Review

The Social Media Peril — Part III

Zucked: Waking Up to the Facebook Catastrophe, by Roger McNamee

Zucked is Roger McNamee’s narrative of a good romance gone bad — except that the behaviors that led to the relationship breakup happen to be global, not personal. McNamee is a long-time, prominent member of Silicon Valley’s investor elite (Bono is one of his partners). He is also an early mentor to Mark Zuckerberg, and an early investor in Facebook. But after what he calls his ‘conversion experience,’ he is now one of the company’s fiercest critics. Therein lies a tale (and about half his book).

McNamee begins his story by likening himself to the character played by Jimmy Stewart in Hitchcock’s Rear Window — minding his own business when he sees what looks like a crime in progress and grapples with what to do.

“One day early in 2016 I started to see things happening on Facebook that did not look right. I started pulling on that thread and uncovered a catastrophe. In the beginning, I assumed that Facebook was a victim and I just wanted to warn my friends. What I learned in the months that followed shocked and disappointed me. I learned that my trust in Facebook had been misplaced. This book is the story of why I became convinced, in spite of myself, that was terrible for America and needed to change or be changed, and what I have tried to do about it. My hope is that the narrative of my own conversion experience will help others understand the threat.

McNamee then details his attempts to alert Zuckerberg and his COO, Sheryl Sandberg, to the fact that ‘bad actors’ (eventually revealed to be Russian intelligence operatives and their bots) were using Facebook to influence the 2016 presidential election. He was politely, but firmly, stonewalled. Eventually, he realized that the story of Facebook’s role in the election unfolded according to a consistent pattern:

Facebook would first deny, then delay, then deflect, then disassemble. Only when the truth was unavoidable did Facebook admit to its role and apologize. Suddenly, a lot of people understood that apologies had been a standard part of Facebook’s public relations tool kit from Zuck’s days at Harvard. Zeynep Tufekci, a brilliant scholar from the University of North Carolina, framed Facebook’s history as a “fourteen-year apology tour.” I reflected that it might be time to tweak Facebook’s corporate motto: Move fast, break things, apologize, repeat.

McNamee eventually realized that the bad actors were not the real issue. Instead, the problems with Facebook were — and still are — intrinsic to its business model, and to its monopoly power. (Or as Siva Vaidhyanathan puts it in his book, “The problem with Facebook is Facebook.”)

This review cannot cover nearly all the evidence that leads McNamee to his conclusion that Facebook is “terrible for America” (and even worse for much of the rest of the world). But his book makes clear that he is especially concerned about two systemic issues: 1) the ways in which Facebook is proving toxic for democracy, and 2) the ways in which social media andsmartphoness are proving toxic for children and adolescents. Given that, let’s look briefly at what he has to say on both these topics.

The anti-democracy threat resides at the nexus of three issues: “engagement” as a business driver, filter bubbles, and artificial intelligence. As most of us understand by now, Facebook’s business model depends on their ability to “engage” us — to hold onto our attention as long as possible, thereby maximizing the likelihood that we will click on one (or more) of the ads they’ve served up. In turn, Facebook’s AI is really good — far better than most us realize — at continuing to capture our attention. Unfortunately, “the AIs present content that appeals to the low-level emotions of the lizard brain, things like immediate rewards, outrage, and fear.”

Giving users what they want sounds like a great idea. Unfortunately, the more our pre-existing notions are reinforced, the more our views move toward the extreme. The result is that people in filter bubbles become increasingly tribal, isolated, and polarized. They seek out people and ideas that make them comfortable. Eventually, this self-imposed (but AI-reinforced) blocking of ideas creates an alternate reality, built around values shared with a tribe. Those inside the bubble

“disregard expertise in favor of voices from their tribe. They refuse to accept uncomfortable facts, even ones that are incontrovertible . . . The tribe is all that matters, and anything that advances the tribe is legitimate . . .

If you are a bad actor and you want to manipulate people . . . all you have to do is infiltrate the tribe, deploy the appropriate dog whistles, and you are good to go. That is what the Russians did in 2016 and what many are doing now.

Which goes a long way toward explaining how “Pizzagate” — the conspiracy theory that high level Democrats, including Hillary Clinton, were running a child prostitution ring out of a DC-area pizzeria — was believed by more than half of Republicans at the time of the 2016 election. Democracy —dependent as it is on thoughtful deliberation and considered compromise, and at a bare minimum on our ability to tell truth from lies — hardly stands a chance.

Children and adolescents stand even less chance, it turns out, of resisting the appeals — and dangers — of social media and our omni-present screens. McNamee details how “products today use every psychological trick to gain and hold user attention, and kids are particularly vulnerable.” In fact, much of the addictiveness of social media platforms has been borrowed directly from the gaming industry. Not surprisingly, McNamee reports that a growing percentage of children now prefer the hyperstimulation of virtual experiences to the real world. Many medical researchers have raised alarms, noting that we have essentially allowed unsupervised psychological experiments on millions of children. (Surely it is the height of irony, if it wasn’t so tragic, that Silicon Valley tech executives are now vigilant that their children do not use the screens and media that they themselves have made ubiquitous.)

McNamee’s conclusion is dire: “It is hard to accept that great harm can come from products we love — and on which we have come to depend — but that is where we are. Our parents and grandparents had a similar day of reckoning with tobacco. Now it’s our turn.”

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