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Is social media the best communications tool that ever happened?

The worst communications tool that ever happened? Or something less comfortable than either?

We hear all three views aired frequently these days, along with many prescriptions for reform.  Some sound the alarm over the success of political movements they disagree with and long for more control:

In most countries, reliable publications are going behind paywalls. More services like Amazon Prime and Netflix are locking premium entertainment behind subscriptions. Which means all of this — the trolls, the abuse, the fake news, the conspiracy videos, the data leaks, the propaganda — will eventually stop being a problem for people who can afford it.

Which will most likely leave the poor, the old, and the young to fall into an information divide. This is already happening. A study released this month from the UK found that poorer British readers got less, worse news than wealthier readers. And according to a new study by Pew Research Center, only 17% of people over the age of 65 were able to identify fact from opinion. Teenage Instagram wellness communities are already transforming into mini Infowars-style snake oil empires.

There are deserts of information where normal people are algorithmically served memes, poorly aggregated news articles, and YouTube videos without any editorial oversight or regulation.
Ryan Broderick, “This Is How We Radicalized The World” at Buzzfeed

Surprisingly, not as much has changed as Ryan Broderick thinks. He is clearly not old enough to remember the 1960s when poorer readers could find out from checkout counter taboids that President Jack Kennedy (1917–1963) was still alive in 1965 and that space aliens were once again lurking around the White House. It’s not clear that the suppression of outrageous media back then would have changed the politics of the era much—except that Americans would have seen much more litigation around the First Amendment, with respect to freedom of the press. The major change from that era to this one is really that the internet enables almost anyone to write foolish things today instead of just saying them.

Others worry that social media could morph into the ultimate top-down authoritarian tool:

In China, government officials watched the Arab Spring with attentiveness and unease. Beijing already had the world’s most sophisticated internet control system, dynamically blocking a huge swath of foreign web domains, including Google. Now it garlanded its Great Firewall with even more barbed wire. China developed new ways to surgically turn off internet access in zones within cities, including a major block of downtown Beijing where it feared demonstrations. It also digitally walled off the entire province of Xinjiang after violent protests there that spread via the internet. Beijing may even have dabbled with creating a nationwide internet “kill switch.”

This bowdlerized version of the internet doesn’t sound at all like the original dream of the World Wide Web, but it has thrived nonetheless. By now, there are roughly 800 million people who surf the internet, exchange chat messages, and shop online behind the Great Firewall—nearly as many people as live in the United States and Europe combined. And for many Chinese, rising middle-class prosperity has made online censorship considerably easier to bear. Give me liberty, the line might go, or give me wealth. Nicholas Thompson and Ian Bremmer, “The AI Cold War That Threatens Us All” at Wired

No question that this is a serious problem. China is exporting the tools for Planet Surveillance to nations willing to live there. However, readers old enough to remember the Cold War will recall that the Soviet Union was doing the same things. We didn’t have social media back then but communist governments had complete control over whatever media were available in their jurisdictions. The internet can only free people whose goal is freedom; it can’t make them want freedom just by existing, any more than TV, radio, books or scrolls could.

And yes, the philosophical approach is alive and well and living on the margins, as always:

This brave new world, which we think is so very different from the world our forebears knew has unique elements. But our response to it is perhaps as old as time. As Lauren Oyler writes in The Baffler, we’re kidding ourselves if we’re nostalgic for some other era when we used time more wisely. She writes:

A refrain among my peers and colleagues—“what might I be doing if I weren’t looking at Twitter all day?”—presupposes that deep down we’re not really like this, that there’s some substrate of reality beneath this manic and useless activity, a noumenal world in which we accomplish tasks or experience leisure without tabbing over to our curated roster of news and opinion every five minutes. But the fact is…. if I were writing to you from 1880 or 1930 or 1975, I probably would have spent all the time I used this week to collect retweets and passively monitor the online activities of people I’ve never met to instead pace or stare at the wall or flip through old photo albums or call my friends on the phone or whatever else it is they did to procrastinate before the flagitious rise of the gig economy. Ephrat Livni, “The internet is a manifestation of our psyches—neither better nor worse” at Quartz

Which is the true face of social media? All of them but mostly the third. Social media are a digital mirror. We think they tell us about the world and they do, to some extent. But, in terms of the time and attention choices we make, they mostly tell us about ourselves. Perhaps we should keep that in mind when we hear prescriptions for reform of social media aired.

See also: Chilling snippet from mass surveillance in China China is helping other countries restrict their citizens’ internet, while shunning the U.S.


The true cost of “free” social media

Is social media the best communications tool that ever happened?