The days of innocence of a Harvard undergraduate sitting in his dormitory and inventing an app to connect his university’s community have long gone. Mark Zuckerberg may not have completed his computer science degree, but within a phenomenally short time he has become one of the wealthiest people on the planet, with net worth in excess of $74 billion, and he and his company wield enormous influence on millions of lives worldwide.
Facebook, Twitter and many other social media platforms, like any other revolutionary technology, were bound to lead to discussions about whether they are a source of good or evil. The invention of aircraft enabled people to more easily travel, discover and connect with remote places, but also led to the creation of military monsters that have killed millions; nuclear technology is used in medicine and in generating cheap and clean electricity, but nevertheless has the potential to destroy the world several times over — and those are only two examples. Information technology in this sense is value free and morally neutral until we, human beings, assign it content and purpose. Zuckerberg, in a moment of naïveté if one feels generous toward him, or just outrageously playing innocent, claims: “By giving people the power to share, we’re making the world more transparent.” If only it were that simple. There is nowhere easier to hide than in the vast territory of cyberspace. Both identity and intention can be completely concealed, opening the way to an unlimited array of deceptions and attacks, leaving people vulnerable both physically and psychologically.
There is a consensus that social media, and none more so than Facebook, is addictive and can result in psychological dependency. The debate, however, that is currently engulfing Facebook is whether this was designed from the outset, or has organically evolved with or without a plan. According to one of Facebook’s founders, Sean Parker, those who devised the platform understood from the very beginning that they were creating something addictive that exploited “a vulnerability in human psychology.” He admitted at an event last month that in building the application much thought was put into “How do we consume as much of your time and conscious attention as possible?” Personal identity and validation of who we are became reliant on how much we are “liked” or referred to on social media.
One of the arguments in support of the role of social media is that it promotes political participation and social awareness. Whatever truth there is in talk of an “online democracy,” on too many occasions social media has become a platform on which to disseminate fake news, xenophobia, misogyny and racial hatred. Worse, since the safeguard procedures for preventing or even removing offensive and inciting posts, let alone plain misleading information, are mostly lacking or too slow to implement where they do exist, the damage is already done by the time such posts are removed. However, it is not just imposters who like to do this. US President Donald President Trump recently retweeted three extremely inflammatory videos taken from the account of the British far-right group Britain First, rife with vile anti-Muslim content. This might be an extreme example, by a very unusual leader, but nevertheless, here is the head of the most powerful country in the world, endorsing and disseminating racial hatred, an action that left Britain’s prime minister Theresa May with little choice but to condemn Trump for legitimizing views that are the “antithesis of the values that this country represents — decency, tolerance and respect.”
Social media as a means of communication is still in its infancy and has great potential, but all it has done so far is coarsen public discourse and pander to the lowest common denominator.
And those happen to be three key values without which social media can never play a constructive role in political and social debate. As things stand, there is no respect for privacy and no tolerance of opposing ideas and opinions, and decency is missing from many of the arguments taking place across social media worldwide. A case could be made that, thanks to social media, the 2 billion members of Facebook are exposed to a wealth of information that could make them more informed and, as a result, better citizens. There is a grain of truth in this. The problem is, however, that diverse and quality information is frequently drowned out by the sharing of countless unbounded and mundane human activities, from walking the dog to what one had for breakfast. If social media has done anything at all, it has dumbed down and infantilized much of the discourse on the most significant issues of our time.
Social media is a mode of communication still in its infancy. It has not demonstrated yet that it has presented a solution to two major shortcomings of a pluralistic debate — the lack of both an informed and a participating public. Emojis are no substitute for in-depth reading and learning about a subject, and there are great concerns over issues of privacy and the manipulation of facts in favor of vested interests. There is great potential in social media for improving constructive and educated public engagement with the most pertinent issues affecting individuals and societies. From climate change, to war and peace, global human rights and Brexit, social media has the potential to facilitate intelligent and fruitful discussions. However, so far, due to the greed of those who developed and own it, who are more interested in profits than in the quality of the content posted, and due to the participation of those who are technologically savvy and want to use it as another tool of cheap propaganda, social media has too often done nothing to raise the standard of the lowest common denominator, but instead has simply pandered to it.
• Yossi Mekelberg is professor of international relations at Regent’s University London, where he is head of the International Relations and Social Sciences Program. He is also an associate fellow of the MENA Program at Chatham House. He is a regular contributor to the international written and electronic media. Twitter: @YMekelberg