With each passing day comes yet another reason to question the notion that the long arc of the universe bends toward justice. However, this year, in particular, has made it resoundingly clear that — regardless of the direction of that arc — the process by which it bends manifests with stuttering jolts and fits. Things seem one way to many people, until, for whatever reason, all of the sudden everyone realizes they’re not.
It is a similar reckoning that has befallen the do-no-wrong darling of the tech industry: social media. Long heralded by its profits as a digital panacea for our fractured world, services like Facebook and Twitter have instead come to both represent and fuel our darker natures.
And, over the course of 2017, we’ve finally started to realize it.
While for many Americans, naming “complicit” the word of the year was a sadly fitting choice, those in Silicon Valley have found themselves uttering another term likewise befitting a collective fall from grace: disbelief. Disbelief that their once loved platforms have, like a late-night Cinderella, transformed from the belle of the ball to unwanted stepchild. Disbelief that, from the shiny and seemingly unassailable promise of bringing us together to a pernicious network of disinformation tearing us apart, social media has worked its way into our lives not like a cure but a cancer. It’s rotting us, and the country along with it, from the inside out.
The world took notice.
Trump, the Russians, and ‘fake news’
Perhaps the single most headline-grabbing truth of social media to be revealed over the course of 2017 was just how much of a role it played in electing Donald Trump. Initially brushed off as a “pretty crazy idea,” the fact that platforms like Facebook distributed misinformation on a massive scale in the lead up to and following the 2016 presidential election is now widely accepted. And while the troubling application of the service to spread so-called “fake news” was not limited to the U.S., it was there that it first so prominently reared its multi-pronged head.
That a Russian troll farm was easily able to weaponize social media to its ends was not lost on Americans, or many of their elected officials, and calls for regulation moved into the mainstream. Republican Sen. John Kennedy of Louisiana went so far as to tell Facebook’s general counsel that “your power scares me.”
That power, of course, is not limited to Facebook. Twitter, too, struggled and continues to struggle with the actors using its platform in ways that would likely upset the average Tom, Dick, or Harry. Just recently the company identified 36,000 bots and 2,752 accounts reportedly controlled by individuals tied to the Russian government which operated in the lead up to the 2016 presidential election. At least one of these accounts, @Jenn_Abrams, was apparently so convincing that it was published in Mashable, The Washington Post, Buzzfeed, CNN, and The New York Times.
Instagram, which, of course, is owned by Facebook, didn’t escape this mess unscathed either. Russian-backed ads seemingly designed to influence the 2016 presidential election were also deployed on the service more associated with pug pics than Putin.
Taken as a whole, this worked to poison an already toxic political discourse, and pushed people even further into their rapidly collapsing reality bubbles. Sadly, it’s not getting better any time soon.
Racism, sexism, and all the other rot
As unpleasant as it may be to admit, those who maliciously abuse the online services finely tuned by the likes of Facebook and Twitter to monopolize our attention aren’t always directed by foreign governments looking to sow discord. Rather, a lot of the garbage found these days on social media originates much closer to home.
Surprising exactly no one, it turns out the United States specifically, and the world in general, is full of racist and misogynistic assholes. And, well, they have thrived on social media. Putting aside platforms like Gab, which seem explicitly designed to provide a platform for hate speech, it’s getting harder and harder to dip a toe into the online pool without acquiring some sort of associated stink.
Twitter, in particular, has morphed into such a teeming mass of harassment that the company was forced to release a roadmap laying out the steps it plans to take to curb abuse. And sure, better reporting mechanisms are a good thing, but that’s like offering an improved bandaid while the patient bleeds out.
But it’s not just the racists souring social media for the rest of us — at least one company has demonstrated itself as, at times, complicit (there’s that word again) in the poisoning of its well. Facebook, for example, positioned itself to directly profit off discrimination. In 2016, a ProPublica investigation revealed that the advertising giant was allowing advertisers to exclude users based on race. Don’t want to show housing ads to African Americans? Facebook had you covered. The company promised to change the system to safeguard from abuse in February, but the fixes didn’t work. Facebook temporarily stopped offering the feature in November after it was called out yet again.
That not bad enough? Facebook also allowed advertisers to pay for ads targeting groups like “Jew haters” and people who were “interested in” shockingly repugnant statements like “Hitler did nothing wrong.” When confronted with this, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg understandably denounced it, but by that point the algorithmically driven racism had already left the ad-sales barn.
This has all been roundly condemned, and the social media giants of the word promise to do better, but there’s only so many times you can tell someone “that’s not who I really am” before they start to see through the nicely packaged facade. And, over the course of 2017, Americans specifically, and the world in general, have started to do just that.
Your privacy and life as a lab rat
While the notions of privacy and social media seem inherently at odds, there are a few basic lines that people don’t want crossed. Social media companies, for their part, seem to only pay lip service to the few lines they’re even willing to acknowledge exist.
Facebook in particular isn’t content with just knowing what you do while using one of its many properties, and has long collected information about you while you browse the open web. This is all in service of building more complete profiles on its users in order to better target them with ads.
When those ads are for random products they’re perhaps an easier pill to swallow. However, when they’re used to malevolently lure you and your political opponents to a fake protest or to encourage race-based violence? Well, that’s another situation all together.
Unsurprisingly, even those that still use the service are starting to revolt. Some are convinced that Facebook uses the microphones on their computers and phones to listen in on their conversations to better serve them ads (Facebook denies this), and have taken active and elaborate steps to fight back. Others have started employing online tools in an attempt to peel back the company’s curtain and see just how much it knows about them. Surprise, it’s a lot.
And what companies like Facebook do with this information is extremely upsetting. No one likes to think they are being experimented on, and yet your friendly Menlo Park engineers have done just that. It was revealed in 2014 that the company ran a study to see if it could alter people’s moods by showing them a disproportionate number of uplifting or downer statuses in their news feeds. Basically, someone at Facebook thought it would be interesting to mess with people’s emotional states (for science!) and so the company went ahead and did it.
This playing of god has done nothing to endear the people of the world to their digital overlords. An early 2017 report from 24/7 Wall St put Facebook as America’s 6th most hated company. What’s more, it was reported in May that the European Union had fined Facebook for allegedly violating user privacy. And Twitter? Well, there’s an entire genre of writing dedicated to bemoaning pretty much every thing the company does.
The indictment, however, is broader than just the Facebook and Twitter-specific critiques. A new study suggests that compulsively checking social media during a disaster — a time when, at least theoretically, getting rapid updates could be helpful — can cause psychological distress. This suggests that even if the purveyors of our digital fix were invested in our well being, their main cure would have to be shutting their own doors.
Kicking the habit ain’t easy
Still, simply knowing something is bad for you — and even disliking it for that — isn’t always enough of a reason to drop it. Addiction is a powerful thing, and the dopamine generated by compulsively checking social media has become this country’s preferred high.
But even Facebook’s founding president, Sean Parker, has some regrets. He noted in a November interview that the conscious intention of the company’s founders was to get people essentially hooked.
“The inventors, creators — it’s me, it’s Mark [Zuckerberg], it’s Kevin Systrom at Instagram … it’s all these people — understood this consciously, and we did it anyway,” he explained. “God only knows what it’s doing to our children’s brains,” he added.
So where does this leave us? Despite all the evidence that social media is both bad for us individually and collectively, we show no signs of cutting back. The number of Twitter monthly active users has tapered off to around 330 million, and Facebook’s monthly user base continues to grow — hitting 2 billion this year. Instagram, meanwhile, has reached 800 million MAUs and shows no signs of stopping its growth.
If anything, these numbers demonstrate one of the wonderfully confusing things about being human — that we can hold something dear while simultaneously despising it. There is some hope, however. If 2017 was the year we realized our addiction was killing us and turned against social media as a result, perhaps 2018 will be the year we finally kick it.