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The Twittering Machine: Richard Seymour on the Myths of Social Media

Posted on 3rd September 2019 by Mark Skinner

In The Twittering Machine, published by The Indigo Press, political writer Richard Seymour picks apart our relationship with social media and highlights the dangers inherent in a system that preys on our insecurities and vulnerability. The exclusive essay below details five myths about social media that the big tech companies don't want us to know, and reveals how they go about concealing them.

Five Myths About ‘Social Media’

1. Social Media Allows Us to Connect in an Unprecedented Way

The term ‘social media’ is instant propaganda. All media are social. Calling the digital platforms ‘social media’ is like calling cigarettes ‘friendship sticks’.

Let’s call it for what it is, a highly profitable industry: the social industry. We work for it, free, supplying masses of data for advertisers, academic researchers and state security services. It’s offered as free leisure, so we don’t notice the work.

Ironically, the industry emerged just as people were becoming less social. The last quarter of a century has seen a big drop in all signs of sociability. We spend less time in pubs, dating, going out. This is linked to growing depression and loneliness. The network substitutes for what is missing in our lives. We reach irritably for our phones during conversations, meals, parties, and dates because we are disappointed by our offline relationships. Yes, it allows us to connect, with people who aren’t there. But it also allows us to disconnect from the people who are there.

2. We are Hooked on the Pleasure that Online Platforms Give Us

We may not think we’re addicted, but the social industry treats us as though we are. Listen to former Facebook and Twitter bosses. They tell us they devised a machine to get us hooked to a dopamine rush whenever we see notifications, ‘likes’ and ‘shares’. That, they say, drives up user engagement.

It’s not that simple, however. Dopamine doesn’t give us a ‘high’. And it would be hard to explain addiction purely as pleasure, when addictions bring so much suffering. After all, ample studies link use of online platforms to increased depression, self-harm and even suicide.

The dark side is just as engaging as the ‘likes’ and attention. All of those tempestuous, nasty twitterstorms drive up user engagement. Far from being lured by the ‘likes’, for many users it’s the storms of online hate that are most compelling. Witness those celebrities engaging in self-destructive fights with their online followers. The thrill we get from this is like that of a career gambler, who gets a strange satisfaction from anteing up in the face of loss.

3. Social Media Platforms are Waging War on ‘Fake News’

‘Fake news is not your friend,’ says Facebook. Since 2016, they have been under enormous pressure from the US Congress to crack down on ‘fake news’. They are banning accounts, like that of conspiracy theorist Alex Jones, and adjusting their algorithms to detect ‘fake news’ and demote it so that it appears in fewer feeds.

But what is ‘fake news’? We use the term to describe clickbait, ill-informed posts, political propaganda, and conspiracy theories. Most of these phenomena are too pervasive to be wiped out by a few bans, or algorithmic changes. The industry incentivises them. It depends on us engaging with the platforms as frantically as possible. What appears in our feeds is designed to goad us into reacting. It doesn’t select for accuracy of information, but for impact. That’s why YouTube’s algorithms promote ‘extremist’ content, while Google and Facebook have promoted ‘fake news’ stories. They can’t destroy ‘fake news’ without destroying their business model.

Because they are hungry for data, they are agnostic about content. When Mark Zuckerberg said he had no objection to Holocaust denial on Facebook, he was forced to retract. But he was telling us something important. Content agnosticism was always implicit in advertiser-funded news but tempered by the political agenda of their proprietors. Facebook and friends don’t care about that. Anyone who can package propaganda as infotainment has a profitable future on the social industry.

4. Social Media is on the Side of Democracy

Remember the ‘Twitter revolutions’? From this early burst of cyber-utopianism to today’s cyber-cynicism, it’s been a hell of a comedown. The social industry is now more commonly associated with trolling, lies and far-right subcultures.

Was the social industry ever on the side of democracy? Where did this idea come from? The phrase ‘Twitter revolution’ first came from the State Department during the Obama era. It was flattery. Officials wanted to keep Twitter open to ‘Green Movement’ activists fighting the Iranian regime. They assumed that democracy in Iran would favour the United States. In addition, Democratic administrations had a close relationship with tech giants, seeing the Internet as a means of globalising Washington’s brand of liberalism.

Neither Twitter nor Facebook seriously affected the outcome of these uprisings. Only a small minority of activists ever used these platforms. And while they do break down the old media monopolies, the hope that they would favour democratic organisation was misplaced. They are not democracies, but marketing platforms and laboratories. They work best not for individual users, but for top-down organisations who know how to manipulate the system. In the Middle East, it was the Islamic State that most efficiently exploited these media, using them to recruit the ground troops for a mobile theocracy. Elsewhere, it has been far-right movements and politicians, from Hindutva in India, to Bolsonaro in Brazil, to white nationalism in the United States.

5. Social Media Critics are Just Technophobes

There is no going back to a ‘golden era’ which never existed. The social industry isn’t evil, and it didn’t invent the problems we face. We mustn’t be Luddites about it.

Except that the Luddites weren’t technophobes. They just wanted to stop the machines from being used to dominate workers. Nor are today’s critics, who include leading technologists like Jaron Lanier. As Lanier points out, technologies shape our reality, without having to persuade us of anything. And yet a computer programme is just an automated human purpose.

So the problem is not technology per se, but whose purposes they automate, and why. As Alice Marwick’s research shows, the social industry automates the values of a handful of wealthy men in northern California: competitive, hierarchical, status-oriented. The gamble of today’s Luddites is that we can do a lot better than that.

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