Seven years ago, the internet felt like a vast new democratic space for borderless community building and for the exchange of political and intellectual ideas. For political and civil society activists, social media platforms became an invaluable tool for reporting and organizing. For dissidents in authoritarian regimes, it was an uncensored platform from which they could reach a critical mass of people. And for ordinary citizens, it was a place to amplify one’s voice and views without having to go through a gatekeeper.
When millions of Egyptians took to the streets in 2011, for example, they did so partly in response to exhortations from prominent activists like Google executive Wael Ghonim and democracy activist Asmaa Mahfouz, who posted powerful calls for action on Facebook. The protestors reported their 18-day uprising live from Tahrir Square via Twitter and Facebook to a rapt global audience; and many of those social media personalities became, for a brief time, famous.
But today the regimes that once seemed threatened by social media are now using it to consolidate their power. The Egyptian regime successfully lobbies Facebook and Twitter to suspend the accounts of democracy activists. The president of the United States regularly violates Twitter’s user rules, with no consequences. And now we learn that Facebook is closing down user accounts at the request of the Israeli and U.S. governments. The Iranian regime doesn’t have the influence that U.S. allies like Egypt and Israel have with Silicon Valley. So instead, they simply block access to those platforms.
Today’s internet is no longer a decentralized democratic space that facilitates a freewheeling civic discourse. Those platforms that presented themselves seven or eight years ago as idealistic proponents of freedom of expression now collect our personal data in order to sell us things. And on their way to the bank, they are undermining our civil society and democratic culture.
In 2017 the internet is a two-tiered system that is controlled by four rich and powerful companies — Facebook, Amazon, Google and Apple. The social media platforms let ordinary users have a voice — but only so long as they don’t make the wrong people angry.
Amazon sells us convenience in exchange for all the details it can vacuum up about our private lives, which it in turn monetizes with targeted advertising, tempting bargains and the promise of same day delivery. In a recent Slate article about Alexa, the Amazon speaker that responds to voice commands (and listens to everything that is said in its vicinity), one person interviewed says that he is “okay with [Amazon] spying on him in exchange for the convenience of keeping his lights on a seamless timer.” This willing surrender of agency should worry everyone.
According to a Pew study, most people get their news from social media these days. But since the algorithm only sends us stories that match our interests and worldview, newspapers are scrambling for our attention; meanwhile, our worldview becomes narrower as we are deprived of views that contradict our own, even as the hollowed out newspaper industry scrambles to catch our attention with dumbed-down headlines derisively called “click bait,” and with puffy human interest stories.
Google, the company that once said its motto was “don’t be evil,” collects enormous amounts of data via search, its free email and its document sharing. Often they use that data to produce fascinating and important insights into how our society works; but far more insidiously, they use our data to manipulate our thoughts.
Prominent intellectuals and internet experts are alarmed at the negative and potentially catastrophic consequences of a society that has chosen instant gratification and constant entertainment over independent thinking and face-to-face community building. Experts like Evgeny Morozov, danah boyd, Zeynep Tufekci, ex-Google executive James Williams, Taylor Owen of the Tow Center and Tim Wu, a professor at Columbia University Law School, are publishing books and articles and giving lectures that amount to a big, red, flashing light. The internet is not free. Surveillance capitalism is real and it is dangerous. We are allowing a handful of corporations that do not have our best interests at heart (if anything: the opposite) to take over our lives, at our peril.
For an example of the power of social media that might resonate with Forward readers, who remembers the notorious 30-second video statement that Benjamin Netanyahu posted on his Facebook page the day before the 2015 election?
“Arabs are coming out in droves to the polls,” he said, claiming they were being “bused in by leftists.” The only way to save the country, he exhorted, was to get out the vote for the Likud.
The polls had been predicting a tight race with Likud’s rival Zionist Union pulling ahead. But with that one video of racist lies, Netanyahu succeeded in getting a last minute surge of voters to come out and vote for him. He closed the gap and won the election.
For more than a decade, I have been spending a significant portion of my waking hours on Facebook and Twitter. I use it to promote my work, to follow the work of my colleagues, to stay in touch with a far-flung network of friends, to see what my ex-boyfriends are doing and to read news articles that the algorithm has chosen for me. I tell stories for the gratification of instant feedback. I turn to it when I am bored, when I am looking for a distraction and when I am lonely. I am hooked. Over tea the other night, a friend of mine, who is a brilliant academic with an independent mind, confessed that she too was addicted to Facebook. We agreed that we needed to wean ourselves of this addiction —but how? All our friends were there!
In response, I told her a personal story — one of those stories that I tell with ease borne of much repetition. Exactly 10 years ago in January I quit smoking, after consuming more than a pack a day for 24 years. For a long time I had known I needed to give them up, but I could not imagine my life without cigarettes. All of my friends were smokers, I explained to one friend, and we spent hours talking over coffee and cigarettes. My social life would suffer if I gave up smoking; no (wo)man is an island and no ex-smoker can sit with a bunch of smokers. Turns out, I was lying to myself and I didn’t even know it.
One day I quit, cold turkey, with no pre-planning, as the result of an illness. The first 10 days of physical withdrawal were hell, and the following months of psychological withdrawal were only somewhat better. But when I could think about matters other than my post-withdrawal misery, I looked around and noticed something that blew my mind: As it turned out, only one of my friends smoked. That’s what drugs do to the mind – whether the drug is heroin, nicotine, or the dopamine hit of a “like” on Facebook. They present life through a distorted lens.
Facebook and Twitter will disappear one day, probably quite soon and quite suddenly. They seem huge and invulnerable at the moment, but who remembers AOL and Yahoo these days? And the anxiety people are feeling at having their data collected and their thoughts made into a commodity is palpable, which also makes one feel as though we are near a tipping point. But after the death of Facebook and Twitter there will be other avaricious corporations standing by, waiting to market our thoughts and feelings for money. It is not realistic to think that we can just disconnect our decade-old network of connection; it is an entire lifestyle.
The solution, I think, lies in re-imagining how we connect online, via platforms that are not for profit and which are open source. Online social networking is now such a big part of our lives, that the idea of giving it up completely feels both too radical and not really desirable; like most people, I’ve developed important friendships and curated indispensable career networks through Facebook and Twitter.
But perhaps rather than handing over our personal lives to manipulative, profit-driven corporations in exchange for the convenience of maintaining our online social lives, we should consider ways in which we can recreate those networks on an open source, not-for-profit platform. Surely there are some idealistic, knowledgeable people out there who would like to take on the task of developing something that distills the good from commercial social media platforms while dispensing with the bad. Let us not give up our agency for fleeting pleasure and dubious conveniences.
Lisa Goldman is a contributing editor to +972 Magazine, which she co-founded. She lives in Montreal. Follow her on Twitter, @lisang.