Social Media: A Curse
I t was inevitable. For years, Google’s empire had been building itself up, growing more potent, and becoming an ever-present entity in American life. One couldn’t go a day without facing Google. But on Wednesday, that dynamic was faced with an unusual challenge, the Justice Department. Though dealing with controversies of its own, the Department took its shot at the social media giant via a lawsuit that accused the media giant of violating anti-trust law. And, I, for one, am thankful. It may seem odd for someone of my political persuasion to take shots at Google, or any social media company, as conservatives have used them as a boogeyman for years now, but that does not make Google worthy of my affection. Merely because Google is the target of the Right’s fury does not mean that my grievances disappear. The fact of the matter is that social media giants like Google have created a landscape that is not conducive to our republic’s well-being.
For one, social media’s relationship with Democracy provokes the worst impulses of the populace. Again and again, the current social media landscape has consistently promoted so-called echo chambers, pockets of the internet in which a person or groups of persons are only exposed to information that they like to hear. In essence, Google tells you what you want to hear. In doing so, Google takes what should be an informed population and turns them into partisan hacks unwilling to pursue truth in favor of tribal talking points. Google filters the search results on its search engine to tailor to your desires, and why would it do anything else? Its reach is extensive, with 80 percent of search queries on mobile devices going through Google. If it reaches so many people and people get what they want, what does it matter if they’re fed talking points? The problem we, as a Democracy face, lies in the inherent ignorance that results from listening to partisan hackery. By listening to the things that we want to hear, and only that, we become blind to our society’s realities. We become customers of the party, not the informed citizens that we are supposed to be.
A republic necessitates an informed public. Removing that informed public from the equation ensures that the American people will become more tribal and incapable of considering in-depth solutions. In this way, social media is like a drug, consuming us with outrage and talking points that hide our political beliefs’ inadequacies. We become addicted and blind.
While social media has undoubtedly ensured that Americans will indulge its pre-determined biases, it has also coaxed out dangerous radicals. In some cases, these radicals are willing to overthrow a duly elected governor, slander men, and women of the opposite party with false accusations of pedophilia, and spread dangerous information about a pandemic. Just as a republic requires the public to debate with alternative perspectives of belief, so too must it engage with reality. The advent of conspiracism is a threat to both goals. At the forefront of conspiracism is the idea that those who oppose the in-group are dangerous or unworthy of power and have to be removed. We saw this with the recent attempt to kidnap Michigan Governor Whitmer, and we saw this with Qanon. This fantastical conspiracy holds that a cult of pedophiles consumes the higher echelons of society. Various social media sites have been spreading inaccurate claims and dangerous conspiracies that have impaired well-intentioned public policy.
Facebook is especially guilty of this, as I have previously written, resulting in violence and hostility to minorities and other so-perceived undesirables. Qanon is just one example of Facebook failing to deal with violent rhetoric adequately. Twitter, Instagram, and many other platforms were flooded with Pizzagate conspiracies that resulted in a gunman, Edgar M. Welch, marching into the Comet Ping Pong pizza place in D.C. to investigate an alleged sex trafficking ring coordinated in the basement. Unbeknownst to Welch, the pizza place he had stormed had no basement, and he had bought into a conspiracy theory. It must’ve been humiliating.
But all of this goes to show that the social media landscape, which we as customers are partially responsible for, has been so-focused on clicks and attention that it can’t adequately inform Americans. With much of social media running through companies like Facebook and Google, a shakeup is in order.
While some may argue that a mass break-up of social media companies would hamper their abilities to restrict conspiracies, the American people should remember that most Americans have seen social media, at least in its current form, as harmful. An estimated two-thirds of Americans think that social media has harmed the public. Americans are aware of the toxicity of the current social media environment and, theoretically, if they were given more choices about what companies they wished to associate with, they may choose sites that are soberer-minded and calmer. That would, in turn, allow the public to take a breath and seek out information to key questions about the world in which they live. While not necessarily entitled to interfere in what is said by the media itself, the government should endeavor to prevent mass consolidation of media outlets around tech companies. If the republic is to improve, it has to start with anti-trust law.