Can we defund social media to counter toxic culture?

easyDNS is pleased to sponsor Jesse Hirsh‘s “Future Fibre / Future Tools” segments of his new email list, Metaviews

Especially now that it’s a matter of life and death


The toxicity of social media is certainly not new. Media in general tends to cultivate an ongoing lament that our culture and hence civilization is in decline, and that the proof and cause exist within some maligned and misunderstood newcomer.

Rock and roll was a classic villain that wore this trope, and one that I use to remind myself that such concerns are usually nonsense and cover for deeper biases and prejudices.

However the toxicity of social media is not just about content or usage, but also power, and the position these platforms play in our lives and in our societies.

This helps reinforce a tension, or conflict, that exists between the agency of social media and the ownership of it. The paradox that has one the one hand, an unprecedented ability to reach and organize publics, contrasted with increased concentration of power and wealth.

Here we are, with what appears to be the greatest tool for democracy ever invented, and yet it seems to be undermining and attacking democracy at every turn and in every way. How do we reconcile this apparent contradiction? How do we tame or mitigate the worst of social media while protecting the freedoms it affords us?

I’m personally wrestling with this as I’ve found a clear correlation between social media and my mental health. The more time I spend offline, the happier I am. The less time I spend looking at or surfing social media, the less I find myself anxious or depressed.

An easy conclusion to draw from this would be to quit social media. I think about it almost everyday. Yet it only serves to reinforce my depression as I’m not sure I have the privilege to do so.

I’m being a bit lazy here, in that there’s arguably no such thing as “social media” but rather specific platforms of power that frame their activity around social connections but the reality is arguably the opposite. Hence let me take a moment to be platform specific.

I’d love to delete my Twitter account, but that seems foolish. After nearly decade and a half of using the platform I’ve fostered an interesting network that I’m not entirely ready to discard. Mind you I can’t actually reach these people, but somehow Twitter provides me a theoretical connection to them? As a result I see some value in the connection with these people?

However I don’t see much value to what I’ve tweeted or what I now tweet. I’ve investigated deleting all of my tweets, but it cannot be done for free, or quite frankly, without some effort. I’m not yet motivated to put in that effort, but I’m getting there. Similarly I cannot look at the twitter feed I get via my primary account without becoming seriously alienated if not agitated. If it weren’t for my metaviews twitter, which I use as a search tool for this newsletter, I wouldn’t be on Twitter at all.

Facebook is also a source of conflict. Once more I don’t want to delete the connections, but I also wonder what value they bring to my life? However unlike Twitter, Facebook has become part of the local (government) infrastructure, and in deleting Facebook I risk disconnection from (the news about) my local community and region. Given that I’m relatively new to this area, that would seem foolish.

Instagram and TikTok don’t have much social value to me. I’ve not made any meaningful connections there, or at least those I have made, exist elsewhere, and are not exclusive to these two apps. While I have a Snapchat account I’ve almost never used it, and open the app twice a year when my nephew randomly decides to use it.

As a media scholar I use these apps to understand them, to investigate the many cultures that manifest in and around them, all of which tends to leave my alienated and turned off by an otherwise narcissistic and hedonistic meta culture.

Yet in spite of all this ambivalence if not outright hostility, I continue to believe in a larger social good or social value that arises from this technology and culture.

For example, learning is an obvious one. I still regard social media (as a genre) comprising the most powerful (and accessible) learning technology ever invented. This is the primary reason I continue to use social media. It fuels my learning, and when properly configured or employed, becomes an ongoing source of intelligence, that blows my mind whenever I stop to think about it, or how it compares to the media of my/our youth.

Certainly it has changed my relationship with entertainment. At the very least that has become edutainment, as I use YouTube as a means of answering the questions I have, and finding topics to open new horizons. Yet it is often a form of night class, where I end my day by relaxing with some free form learning.

All of which makes dealing with or addressing the broader culture of toxicity so difficult. We don’t want to discard or give up some of the benefits, yet we cannot ignore or defer dealing with the threats that social media enables.

Just as calls to defund the police have galvanized discussion, debate, and policy deliberation around how to better configure community security, safety, and services, perhaps defunding social media provides a frame.

POLITICAL SPEECH HAS always been tethered to public health. The mass protests that erupted following George Floyd’s murder foreground this overlap: White supremacy is a public health disaster. Climate denialism and anti-vaxx activism similarly threaten the lives and safety of citizens around the globe. With Covid-19, the line between political speech and public health has eroded in even more distressing ways. Objects of science have, for many, been reduced to matters of opinion—or even outright conspiracy. In those cases, masks aren’t just masks; they’re symbols of oppression. Anthony Fauci isn’t just the country’s most prominent infectious disease expert; he’s part of a Deep State cabal seeking to undermine the Trump administration from within. The virus itself isn’t ripping through our neighborhoods, forcing cities like Houston to use backup morgue space; it’s a hoax, or something the Democrats are exploiting to goose their election odds. The inability to cordon off the basic facts of public health from reactionary propaganda threatens people’s lives. And, like everything in this godforsaken pandemic, things are on track to get much worse.

This is an important point. Public health is politics. As this pandemic has demonstrated, in a crisis, public health is the government.

The mistake our public health officials keep making is to think they’re not political, that they’re language is neutral, when it is the exact opposite. Which is why we keep arguing for better public health education, not as a passive activity, but like a debate, with high levels of passion and engagement.

To do otherwise is to cede the battle in what is already an all out information war. We can’t keep pretending that rational evidence based arguments will win on their own merits when the broader culture is skewed towards sensationalism and outrage.

One force we must confront is the attention economy, an incentive structure designed to reward the most uncompromising, polarized, clickable minority. (Ironically, this minority is very often part of the white majority; see breathless, disproportionate coverage of white nationalists and supremacists following the 2016 election.) The resulting tyranny of the loudest presents an algorithmically-warped view of what’s happening in the rest of the United States.

Arguing that we live in a tyranny of the loudest should be self-evident to most people, even if the current POTUS was not an embodiment of it. One of the primary characteristics or features of social media is volume. Amplification makes it possible for unofficial narratives to compete if not eclipse what governments or institutions want us to focus on or believe. In general this is a good thing, but not always in this current economic and cultural environment.

The article cited above offers two ways of undercutting the attention economy:

If we could emphasize the common-sense consensus on masks, it wouldn’t just affirm our faith in humanity. (Though it certainly would do that: I’d spend hours on a YouTube channel dedicated to groups of people being reasonable.)

Quick plug:

It would also undercut the attention economy, in two ways.

First, it would minimize the incentive to be an asshole. If you’re not rewarding people with clicks and likes for antagonistic behaviors, there’s less reason for them to keep doing it. This is a dynamic as old as trolldom. As long as something generates capital—whether economic or social—there’s no reason to stop. In fact, one’s livelihood might depend on keeping it up, and doing it even worse the next time.

Second, foregrounding the good-faith majority short-circuits the amplification feedback loops that normalize harm. I made this argument back in April in response to the anti-quarantine protests: when you frame a fringe movement as a mainstream one, it has a funny tendency to become exactly that. In the case of masks, propagating the anti-maskers’ arguments, even to condemn them, risks spreading those arguments to even more people who might be sympathetic. At the very least, it muddies the issue—if so many people are fighting about masks, does that mean there’s something here to fight about?

While this is well meaning and all, it feels a little bit like how we started today’s issue, revisiting the trope that old media laments new media and regards it as a threat to civilization as we know it.

This is partly why I don’t mind the phrase social media, even if it so blunt as to be almost meaningless. The anchor of the phrase is media. Our media industry fuels and sustains social media, even if said media is now subservient to the digital platforms.

The two tendencies described above, sensationalism and false equivalence, not only predate social media, but rather it is the legacy media industry that uses social media to play these tropes in the attention economy. The click bait of today is the tabloid press of yesterday and the influencer drama of tomorrow.

Which makes the argument to defund social media, an argument to defund all media.

Three serious research efforts have put numerical weight — yes, data-driven evidence — behind what many suspected all along: Americans who relied on Fox News, or similar right-wing sources, were duped as the coronavirus began its deadly spread.

Dangerously duped.

The studies “paint a picture of a media ecosystem that amplifies misinformation, entertains conspiracy theories and discourages audiences from taking concrete steps to protect themselves and others,” wrote my colleague Christopher Ingraham in an analysis last week.

Here’s the reality, now backed by numbers:

Those who relied on mainstream sources — the network evening newscasts or national newspapers that President Trump constantly blasts as “fake news” — got an accurate assessment of the pandemic’s risks. Those were the news consumers who were more likely to respond accordingly, protecting themselves and others against the disease that has now killed more than 123,000 in the United States with no end in sight.

Those who relied on Fox or, say, radio personality Rush Limbaugh, came to believe that vitamin C was a possible remedy, that the Chinese government created the virus in a lab, and that government health agencies were exaggerating the dangers in the hopes of damaging Trump politically, a survey showed.

While I would absolutely support a campaign to defund all media as we know it I can also recognize that it is far more radical, and far more unlikely than defunding police departments.

Opinion research like the studies cited above are celebrated by opponents of Fox News as further proof that it is “evil” however it remains an incredibly profitable and popular form of entertainment for its audience. That kind of makes defunding it near impossible, the same way we’ll always have police in so far as we have wealthy people willing to pay them for protection (and power).

Of course I do think there’s an alternative, and it’s why I like this concept of defunding media in general. The paradox is that it must inevitably involve the (power of the) state, as the role of government and the public sector is arguably essential.

However I also think it should be community driven if not also community controlled. Although our definition of community has shifted considerably, both due to social media, but also due to corporations co-opting community as part of their marketing and branding.

Fundamentally the issue of toxic media is not going away, and the level of toxicity sure does seem to be increasing. How we address it is not simple, and will require a lot of compromise, but I also don’t think it’s all that complicated either.

The real issue is power, in this case the power of the platforms to assign and enforce social norms. While I’m skeptical that this aspect of their power will be addressed in the anti-trust hearings scheduled for Washington DC tomorrow, it’s always possible?!

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