Please pardon my shameless borrowing of the name of one of the more interesting streaming TV shows for this headline but it just seemed so much the perfect headline for this post. The Hollywood Reporter has an excellent guest column article by Jeff Orlowski, the filmmaker behind Netflix’s The Social Dilemma.
Orlowski’s thesis is that we are all unwitting Trumans, each starring in our individual versions of The Truman Show, unaware of how social media algorithms are programming us for their profit-at-any-cost advertising platforms. He notes, “While we think these platforms are connecting us to the world, they’re actually separating us from reality.” He then goes on to include this bombshell:
“When Facebook’s former director of monetization, Tim Kendall, was asked in our film what he was most worried about, he replied, ‘civil war.’ At the time that seemed alarmist, but today it feels prescient.”
The ring of truth. Still more: “The experts and tech insiders we interviewed in the film warned us about the dire consequences of letting Big Social play God.”
Orlowski concludes his column thus: “Our social media puppeteers also have a choice [reform or continue doing what they are doing]. Will they complacently watch their creation destroy democracies, or will they take responsibility for fixing the hate-filled mess they’ve made?”
As a former student of Peter Drucker long before I came to study psychology, I would like to contribute the wisdom and prescience of probably Drucker’s greatest influencer, Joseph Schumpeter, from his Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy. (3rd ed., 1950)
“…the typical citizen drops down to a lower level of mental performance as soon as he enters the political field. He argues and analyzes in a way which he would readily recognize as infantile within the sphere of his real interests. He becomes a primitive again. His thinking becomes associative and affective. And this entails two further consequences of ominous significance.
“First, even if there were no political groups trying to influence him, the typical citizen would in political matters tend to yield to extra- rational or irrational prejudice and impulse….
“….Second, however, the weaker the logical element in the processes of the public mind and the more complete the absence of rational criticism and of the rationalizing influence of personal experience and responsibility, the greater are the opportunities for groups with an ax to grind. These groups may consist of professional politicians or of exponents of an economic interest or of idealists of one kind or another or of people simply interested in staging and managing political shows. The sociology of such groups is immaterial to the argument in hand. The only point that matters here is that, Human Nature in Politics being what it is, they are able to fashion and, within very wide limits, even to create the will of the people.” (pp. 264-265)
This comes from part 3 of the book, the section on democracy, wherein he dissects the construct of a government “of the people, by the people, for the people” and “the common good.” He points out the fundamental flaws of these ideas and it is amazing to me that 70 years later his writing sounds like it was done yesterday.
I would suggest that a more heterodox, less inflamed consideration of current events is called for.
Selena Gomez has come out with a strong critique of social media and big tech. One might say that she sees social media as anti-social.
I note as well that Facebook critic Roger McNamee, an early Facebook mentor and facilitator who has turned against Zuckerberg & Co., has recently blamed the Washington meltdown on Facebook and its bottom-line-focus-at-all-cost business model for facilitating it. I agree with McNamee and think his idea of focusing on the social media firms’ business models that rely on algorithms designed to increase viewers’ time on site so as to justify advertisers buying time on the platforms is what needs to be addressed. In this CNBC interview he also implicates social media for violence perpetrated by the far left.
Given the events of the past 24 hours in Washington, D.C., what are we to make of what’s happened? Is there something about social media use that allows its messages to get past our built-in censors and sense of rationality? There has always been a conflict between emotion or affect and rationality or reason. And history has shown that affect tends to trump reason. “Feelings” overpower reasoning; they take some kind of intracranial short cut (or, perhaps, detour would be a better descriptor), bypassing the left side of the brain overall and the cerebral cortex in particular, putting hormonal responses into overdrive while driving out any prior disposition to thinking before acting.
Social media are clearly being weaponized. Whether it’s ISIS recruitment or QAnon and other conspiracy theories, bad results are being propagated through the use of otherwise benign media. Congress seems intent on reining in the likes of Twitter, Facebook, and other outlets. Perhaps the time has come when they should be held to the same standards as the print media, who can be held liable for messages that they disseminate.
The troubling question is, however, who would be the censors? Is it conceivably possible to obtain an unbiased, objective evaluation of media content? I would argue, not at this time. Perhaps we turn the job over to AI? But then, we already have seen critiques that point out programmers’ own biases tend to manifest in their AI-driven constructs. Given the current state of Americans’ distrust of print or “mainstream” media, could we expect anything better in the electronic media?