It seems almost preciously naive now to look back on the early days of social media and remember how good we thought it could be.
First, it was fun connections with old friends. Then it was politically hopeful. Remember the promise of the Green Revolution in Iran in 2009 or the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak in Egypt in 2011? The idea was that the spread of social media would break down the barriers of freedom imposed by authoritarian regimes and seed grassroots democracy around the world.
Instead, the opposite has been true. Social media's rise as our predominant form of communication and information has tracked almost precisely with democracy being put on the defensive. Instead of a flowering of freedom, authoritarian dominance has expanded as social and political divisions have spiked, hate speech and fake news have become rampant and insane conspiracy theories have captured the minds of otherwise sound-thinking people.
The political problem is bad enough. We also need to question what we are doing to ourselves spiritually and psychologically by participating in a vast mental experiment that has a lot of us reaching for our smartphone first thing in the morning and making it the last thing we touch at night.
One of the most important films of the year focuses on this problem, and if you haven't watched it yet, you should. "The Social Dilemma" is part documentary, part dramatization. It gives voice to a handful of Silicon Valley engineers, investors and executives who rose to high positions at Google, Facebook and other tech giants even as they awakened to the reality that they were participating in an expanding experiment in social manipulation.
No one set out to hurt anyone, of course. The people involved in these companies genuinely believed they were doing good. But the nature of social media (and you can count Gmail in this too) in the way it uses game theory to keep users tuned in was a problem from the beginning. Add to that the power of artificial intelligence behind algorithms that constantly pull people deeper into the internet, and the result has been an immeasurable negative effect on society and on individuals.
One of the most shocking scenes in the film tracks the rise in depression and suicide among preteen and teen girls with the advent and increased use of social media in America. The question of correlation and causation isn't perfectly resolved. But as a country, we are getting closer to the sort of moment when Big Tobacco was ludicrously denying a connection with cancer.
But, and I say this cautiously, we may be at a turning point. Over the last two months, my colleagues and I met virtually with nearly 100 candidates for political office (not to mention the many more we met with during primary season).
We asked most of them what should be done about the country's social media situation. I can't recall a single one saying it isn't a problem and that it doesn't need to be addressed. Getting to this point hasn't been easy. Arrogance emanating from Silicon Valley has all but disappeared. We have shifted from promises of reform to actual action. Facebook alone has morphed from pronouncing we-shouldn't-regulate-content to we-can't-regulate-content to we can-and-are-regulating-content.
It isn't time to trust them. Instead, the hour has arrived for technology companies — and specifically social media companies — to be held to a higher standard for the material they publish. We cannot have a healthy democracy if Russia's RT is a top news channel on YouTube. We cannot have a healthy populace if false information about everything from vaccines to coronavirus is given equal and often greater standing than actual information about health and wellness. And we cannot have a peaceful society if foreign powers and internal hate groups use platforms at will to organize and to disseminate hate speech and fake news designed to divide and destroy.
It is time to finally recognize, and I have increased confidence the political class is recognizing, that the regulations these companies now operate under are wholly inadequate to the health of the nation and to free people everywhere. It isn't hyperbole when Jaron Lanier, a father of virtual reality, warns us that civil war is on the table if this continues. Recall that the alleged plot to kidnap Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer was intended to spark a civil war.
The antitrust suit against Google is getting a lot of attention now. But until the government reforms the law known as Section 230 that disconnects social media companies from liability for what is published on their sites, we will not get true reform.
And until there is a reckoning for the game design and algorithmic manipulation cooked into these sites that a) overcome people's conscious efforts to avoid spending more and more time on social media and b) pull them more deeply into the dark corners of the net, these products will create psychological and social harm.
There is good that comes from these products and sometimes great good. Many of us, and probably most of us, have enjoyed connecting in ways that weren't possible before. But what we don't see as consumers is the vast architecture of psychological manipulation that underlie these sites for the very purpose of monetizing our time on them.
That business model, manipulating and monetizing without responsibility for what is published, creates a serious cost on us as individuals and as a society. Given the way the sites are used — and the way they let themselves be used — it is past time for greater intervention.
Rudolph Bush is the deputy editorial page editor for The Dallas Morning News.
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