Social media graphic by geralt (Pixabay License / Pixabay)

Is Social Media Facing Its Biggest Existential Threat?

Jaron Lanier says we should delete our social media accounts, yet it's not social media per se, but the way in which it presently exists, that Lanier is concerned about. But Lanier is overlooking a critical factor in our social media addiction.

Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now
Jaron Lanier
Henry Holt and Co.
May 2019

Social media has faced critics since its earliest days. What’s different about the most recent wave of criticism is that it’s not coming from old-fashioned reactionaries reluctant to try new technologies. Rather, much of it is coming from early adopters of the technology; from programmers themselves who embraced and even contributed to social media’s development, and now fear its negative qualities outweigh its positive applications.

On top of that, the inevitable confrontation between western state governments and private social media companies seems to finally be coming to a head. In late May, former Facebook advisor and investor Roger McNamee appeared before an international committee of MPs in Ottawa, Canada and urged them to shut down Facebook once and for all.

“You have to force a radical transformation of the business model of internet platforms… the most effective path to reform would be to shut down the platforms at least temporarily. …Any country can go first. The platforms have left you no choice. The time has come to call their bluff,” he is quoted by CBC as telling the Canadian House of Commons privacy and ethics committee.

Computer science scholar Jaron Lanier would probably agree with the sentiment and with the outcome, if not with the means. An early computer scientist and pioneer in the field of virtual reality, (See “Star Fucking Trek?” and More About VR and the ‘Dawn of the New Everything’, by Catherine Ramsdell, PopMatters, 25 Feb 2019) his book, Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now, offers a manifesto for change in the way social media works. The problem, he says, is that as long as everyone accepts the current form of social media, there is no pressure for the companies profiting from it to change in any substantial way. Piecemeal — and ineffective — reform efforts will be their response to government pressure and public advocacy, as long as the users keep coming. For the sake of ourselves, as well as the future of useful social media technologies, Lanier urges those who can to abandon the existing social media platforms as much as possible until the power of consumer choice leads to the development of newer and better social media technologies.


Social Media’s Behavior Modification Problem

The May-June 2019 issue of New Internationalist magazine features a debate: “Is it time to quit social media?” Arguing the affirmative is Canadian writer and journalist Michael Harris; defending social media is UK historian Charlotte Lydia Riley. Harris draws an analogy to sugar and fat — not bad in and of themselves, yet “just as our primal desires for sugar and fat were hijacked by fast-food corporations in the 20th century, our desire for social grooming was hijacked by tech corporations in the 21st.” He advocates quitting or reducing social media use as a way to “critically examine our media diets” and “develop rich interior lives.”

Not so fast, argues Riley in counterpoint. The notion of needful solitude and cultivating one’s rich interior life “has always been used to elevate certain thinkers: serious men who don’t have lives filled with the ordinary bustle of daily life.” Social media has provided a “lifeline” for many women and others who have historically been excluded from such privileged lives.

Lanier’s book tries to push this sort of debate in a different direction. His concern is with the underlying business model of social media, the way in which the profit motive has become so all-encompassing that it’s perverted the technology’s beneficial potential, and the use of platforms as an experimental lab for behaviorist computer programmers trying to learn how to modify human social behaviour.

Lanier offers a balanced perspective. He’s not opposed to technology, smartphones, or even algorithms. It is, rather, a combination of factors, coupled with the monopolistic capitalism on which the dominant platforms are based, which drives his warning about the nefarious nature of social media. It’s not social media per se, but the way in which it presently exists, which he is concerned about. But the problem is that so long as users accept the dominant platforms without qualification, nothing will change. He draws an analogy with lead paint: once its noxious and fatal qualities were recognized, people didn’t stop painting their houses, or call for a colourless world. Rather, they simply refused to buy paint that had lead in it, and through a combination of consumer choice coupled with lobbying and regulatory advocacy they managed to ensure lead was removed from paint.

The analogy doesn’t entirely hold up, however: Lanier is at the same time critical of piecemeal reform efforts, as we will see (his hesitation around naming ‘capitalism’ as the problem results in an awkward dance around how drastic the solution should be). But his broader point is that we don’t have to reject technology entirely, in order to reject the dangerous and nefarious form which social media has assumed at present.

Social Media’s Neoliberalism Problem

Lanier’s critique of social media is a critique of neoliberal capitalism in everything but name. He doesn’t present his argument that way – indeed, he says, he’s not opposed to making money through technology and social media – but the inevitable conclusion to be drawn from his work is that it is neoliberal capitalism which has made such a dangerous, unethical technology of social media. Lanier ably dissects the myriad evils which flow from the Internet’s commercialization — the all-consuming profit motive is the reason billions of dollars are expended on something as fundamentally useless to humanity as advertising algorithms, rather than health care technologies or something that could actually help improve society — but stops short of blaming capitalism, even though the evidence is irrefutably heaped up by the end of the book. Its lack of a mature socio-economic critique is the biggest drawback from Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now’s otherwise astute analysis.

It’s interesting to reflect on the fact that the Internet and neoliberal capitalism were born and grew to maturity almost contemporaneously. This was a coincidence; neither consciously aware of the other. However, neoliberalism has indelibly shaped current social media technologies, and their perversion might turn out to be neoliberalism’s most nefarious lasting legacy. At a time when more and more economists and policymakers are turning away from neoliberalism in the face of mounting evidence that it does more harm to economies than good, there doesn’t seem to be an equivalent realization of how deeply neoliberalism is hard-wired into the Internet. Simply trying to temper neoliberalism’s cruelties through welfare-style policy changes may be inadequate so long as its principles remain rooted in the daily technologies we use.

How are the two intertwined? As Lanier observes, the pioneers of social media and its algorithms didn’t consciously try to make the internet predatory. They pursued something they conceptualized as an apolitical middle-ground: engagement. Social media is about encouraging engagement, whether it be positive or negative (or both simultaneously, depending on one’s perspective). Social media algorithms seek to bring about user engagement and response, and they don’t really care whether we click on something because they’ve made us feel happy, or sad, or angry; whether we click/purchase/read/subscribe because of altruistic feelings, or self-deprecatory feelings, or violent feelings, or racist/sexist feelings. They simply seek a response; an engagement. Generating a response, from the perspective of programmers, is translated as success.

Likewise, when anonymous users promote posts, create accounts, buy ads; the administrators of Facebook and Google don’t know, or even care to know, whether they’re altruistic NGO’s, Russian spies, or obscure terrorists. They simply seek to help them maximize their aims through facilitating broad-based engagement with whatever those users are willing to pay for. The hands-off, DIY nature of paying to “expand your reach” via social media is deliberately designed to remove human oversight and responsibility as much as possible from the ethical dimensions of a consumer’s actions.

It is this pretense at a neutral, apolitical, individualized-optimization that makes social media the ultimate in technologies of neoliberal capitalism.

Historically, the advocates of neoliberal economics also professed an apolitical sense of purpose: their goal was market and economic growth. By advocating unregulated fiscal policies as a means to achieve growth (much like social media technologies advocate growth via unregulated – or only lightly regulated – engagement), neoliberal policymakers weren’t actively trying to make communities impoverished; they weren’t trying to increase crime, or make jobs worse and more precarious, or intensify climate change. Yet those have been the outcomes of unlimited-growth-oriented neoliberal capitalism.

The well-intentioned small businesses imagined during the formation of the Internet have been almost universally crushed by predatory mega-corporations that benefit only a fractional elite.

Likewise, social media developers haven’t actively, consciously pursued any of the nefarious goals they have brought about either. Yet by giving free rein to unregulated technological growth, and to enhancing algorithmic-induced user engagement at all costs, they have also made those outcomes happen: social alienation, decline in free speech and democracy, a spike in hate speech and violence; arguably even contributed to wars and militarism.

In many ways it’s the naïveté of the founders of the Internet that is to blame. Not their dream of a peaceful world connected through technology; but rather their trust in private market solutions to bring this about. Many of the things we seek through privately-owned social media companies like Facebook – things like personal identities, ways to engage with other individuals around the world on the basis of common interests, ways of transferring money and credit to purchase things, etc – could have been hard-wired into the Internet as it was first being developed, Lanier explains. Yet the libertarian-minded scientists developing the Internet didn’t think this was necessary: they would simply provide the framework, and trusted that private sector companies would fill in these various more nuanced potentialities.

Indeed, that’s precisely what happened. But instead of the plurality of diverse, small-scale, well-intentioned Internet companies that they envisioned, we’ve wound up with enormous, monopolistic, narcissistic monstrosities like Facebook and Google. It’s sort of akin to the way free marketeers paint an image of capitalism as a harmonious paradise of self-supporting small businesses improving lives for everyone and building happy communities. In reality, the well-intentioned small businesses have been almost universally crushed by predatory mega-corporations that benefit only a fractional elite.

What social media is right now, is a technology predicated on serving entrepreneurs who “are driven by a business model in which the incentive is to find customers ready to pay to modify someone else’s behavior,” Lanier writes. Behaviour modification can mean anything from buying that item you never set out to buy when you logged in (it just appeared in your newsfeed!), to joining a political online group, signing a petition, feeding data miners by doing an online quiz, and more. What’s simplistically referred to as “advertising” by social media companies is nothing of the sort, he warns. It’s not like a soap company presenting you an ad arguing the merits of their soap.

Half the time, you don’t know why you are being fed something on your newsfeed — you don’t know who’s paying to feed it to you, and what they hope to get out of it. That veterans’ ad might be from a Veterans’ Organization hoping to get you to join and donate money to them, like it purports to be. Or it might be from a North Korean spy agency hoping to stimulate support for a divisive Republican candidate in the US election, with the aim of dividing the US government and hampering efforts to clamp down on its nuclear development projects. This is no longer advertising, but sinister psychological manipulation. And the social media companies are complicit in allowing it and refining the technology to make it more devastatingly effective.


Social Media Platforms As Behaviorist Laboratory

One of the outcomes the Internet’s early pioneers didn’t foresee was how social media would contribute to the resurgence of behaviorism: the notion that people’s behaviour is conditioned by their environment, and if you can learn to understand the environmental stimuli that cause people to act in certain ways, you can ultimately control them and produce the responses that you want.

Social media is based on behaviorism, yet “behaviorism is an inadequate way to think about society,” argues Lanier. “We need to foster joy, intellectual challenge, individuality, curiosity, and other qualities that don’t fit into a tidy chart. But there’s something about the rigidity of digital technology, the on-and-off nature of the bit, that attracts the behaviorist way of thinking. Reward and punishment are likes ones and zeroes.”

[Advertisers are] engaging in paid behaviour modification, so if we want to be honest, we ought to call them ‘manipulators’, or some such.

In exposing this, it’s important to look beyond the language. The term “engagement” is an example of the sanitized language that pervades contemporary technology and social media, says Lanier. Similarly, we still call social media customers ‘advertisers’, when they’re not actually advertising products at all. They’re engaging in paid behaviour modification, so if we want to be honest, we ought to call them ‘manipulators’, or some such.

A key problem with a social mediascape premised on behaviorism is that it inevitably leans toward producing negative outcomes. In other words, encouraging people to do bad things is easier than encouraging them to do good things. That’s because behaviorism produces negative changes more easily, efficiently (and cheaply) than it produces positive changes: negative emotions have higher potency in behavior modification than do positive emotions. “You can’t pay social media companies to help end wars and make everyone kind,” writes Lanier. “Social media is biased, not to the Left or the Right, but downward. The relative ease of using negative emotions for the purposes of addiction and manipulation makes it relatively easier to achieve undignified results…Information warfare units sway elections, hate groups recruit, and nihilists get amazing bang for the buck when they try to bring society down.”

“The prime directive to be engaging reinforces itself, and no one even notices that negative emotions are being amplified more than positive ones. Engagement is not meant to serve any particular purpose other than its own enhancement, and yet the result is an unnatural global amplification of the ‘easy’ emotions, which happen to be negative ones.”

Behaviorism helps explain people’s tendency toward nastiness on the Internet. For most of us, there are no financial or material rewards to be gained from our engagement online. The only reward we glean is attention. Therefore, our behaviour drives us to seek attention. And negative attention is often the best and quickest way to achieve attention. Anything to get a few people to listen to us, to click like or some other form of response to the things that we post or do.

“[M]ind games become dominant,” Lanier writes. “With nothing else to seek but attention, ordinary people tend to become assholes, because the biggest assholes get the most attention.”

How Do We Fix Social Media?

In response to growing concern from the public and governments alike, social media platforms in the western world have grudgingly committed, recently, to changes to try to address some of the concerns around the nefarious results of behaviour modification (things like influencing elections, or spreading hate speech). Lanier is skeptical. The whole business model of social media is based on encouraging people to spend money on trying to modify other people’s behaviour. Piecemeal reforms are kind of like trying to contain a fire, rather than trying to put it out. Only when the underlying business model is altered will the negative effects begin to dissipate.

“[T]weaking [“incremental reforms”] doesn’t undo the underlying incentives, so bad actors are likely to invent ever sneakier and more sophisticated countermeasures,” he writes. “Google and Facebook have avidly chased bad actors, fakers, and unsanctioned manipulators, and the result has been the rise of technically accomplished, underground cyber mafias, sometimes working for unfriendly states. The most dispiriting side effect…is that each cycle in the arms race between platforms and bad actors motivates more and more well-meaning people to demand that [these] companies take over more and more of our lives. We ask remote, giant tech companies to govern hate speech, malicious falsified news, bullying, racism, harassment, identity deception, and other nasty things.”

Lanier offers space for nuance in his arguments. Perfect free will doesn’t exist, he acknowledges. Neither is behavior modification necessarily an entirely bad thing. What matters is balance. “[T]he problem isn’t behavior modification in itself. The problem is relentless, robotic, ultimately meaningless behavior modification in the service of unseen manipulators and uncaring algorithms.”

Social Media Undermines Economic Dignity

Lanier covers a lot of ground for a very short book. His prose is sharply honed and to the point. There are some stylistic oddities to his work: the profusion of websites cited as footnotes on each page reads like a print version of hyperlinks. Also, he deploys acronyms a bit too freely — he boils his beef with social media down to “BUMMER”: Behaviors of Users Modified, and Made into an Empire for Rent (the awkward acronym appears frequently on every page). But these minor points aside, Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now collates many of the most devastating consequences of social media and distils them into clearly articulated, succinct arguments.

There is, for example, the manner in which social media encourages people to accept their lack of agency and control in exchange for the instant pleasures and gratification that it can bring. Yet giving up the expectation that we ought to be able to control the social conditions in which we live is a dangerous and inhumane impulse, no matter how gratifying the technologies we are offered in exchange.

“What has become suddenly normal – pervasive surveillance and constant, subtle manipulation – is unethical, cruel, dangerous, and inhumane,” he says.

Social media platforms also disguise their own reliance on precarious and unpaid labour. What is often written off as “computer learning” is in fact unpaid human teaching, going toward computer-generated profits for the companies’ owners. He uses the example of the various online translation systems being developed by Facebook, Google and others. The machines don’t just learn languages, he explains, they study real-life human speakers and translators, and use the work of those (unpaid or underpaid) humans to modify their own language algorithms. Moreover, given the speed with which human language changes, it’s a constant process, with computers having to constantly expand their vocabulary and language-learning as the spoken and written word changes with new slang and other ways of speaking.

Again, none of the humans on whose dialogue all this machine-learning happens receive any compensation for that work, even though the companies who own the machines reap immense profits. This happens parallel to other processes of increased precarity brought about by technology — the ‘sharing’ and ‘gig’ economies which use technology to undermine fair pay and secure working conditions.

The challenge is daunting, but Lanier remains hopeful. “The best way you can help is not to attack those who would manipulate you from afar, but simply to free yourself,” he writes. “That will redirect them — us — and make us find a better way to do what we do.”

“Don’t reject the Internet; embrace it! The Internet itself is not the problem,” he says. This is key to surviving in the modern world without social media — rejecting the platforms does not mean cutting yourself off from society. You can still email people (preferably from a provider that doesn’t read your mail, like Google/Gmail does); you can still keep up on the world through websites; you can actually subscribe to news sites that provide news which interests you (the subscription-based model, he suggests, is in fact a closer approximation to what the early Internet pioneers idealized as a user choice framework). But if you value your soul and your society, he says, consider deleting your social media accounts. At least until this forces a change in how social media platforms operate.

“The companies on their own can’t do enough to glue the world back together. Because people in Silicon Valley are expressing regrets, you might think that now you just need to wait for us to fix the problem. That’s not how things work. If you aren’t part of the solution, there will be no solution.”