Science & Tech

Social-Media Idealism Collides with Human Nature

(Dado Ruvic/Reuters)
Human nature wins.

There was a time, not too long ago, when the American tech billionaires truly believed they could have it all. They believed that they could create platforms for all people, encourage engagement and dialogue, get immensely rich, and change the world in a specific, progressive way.

Think back to 2011. That was the era of the “Twitter Revolution,” the social-media-empowered revolts of the Arab Spring that brought dictators to their knees. As Wired magazine put it, social networks didn’t overthrow governments, but “the speed of communication through digital channels [gave] activists unprecedented agility during street operations.”

America’s newspapers were full of think pieces analyzing the role of Twitter and Facebook in these protests. In those early days, the conventional wisdom was clear. The Arab Spring was good, and social media played an important role in making it happen.

Now think back to 2013. Playing electoral games with Facebook was seen as a good thing to do. In June of that year, the New York Times ran a long, glowing profile of the Obama digital team — a group of brilliant young tech nerds who developed a rather creative way to use Facebook, a method that granted the campaign extraordinary access to information about their supporters’ online friends. Facebook took notice:

The campaign’s exhaustive use of Facebook triggered the site’s internal safeguards. “It was more like we blew through an alarm that their engineers hadn’t planned for or knew about,” said St. Clair, who had been working at a small firm in Chicago and joined the campaign at the suggestion of a friend. “They’d sigh and say, ‘You can do this as long as you stop doing it on Nov. 7.’” (Facebook officials say warning bells go off when the site sees large amounts of unusual activity, but in each case the company was satisfied the campaign was not violating its privacy and data standards.)

There’s a fine line between “creepy” and “innovative,” and if tech developments help smart young progressives find their voice, then “innovative” is the word of the day.

Of course 2013 was also the year that Sheryl Sandberg published Lean In, an immensely successful guide to female empowerment. It sold millions, and Sandberg became a feminist icon.

Where are we now? The Arab Spring spawned brutal, genocidal warfare, and the world quickly learned that vicious jihadists could be just as adept at Twitter, YouTube, and Facebook as young democracy activists were. Lies can spread quicker than the truth, and ancient hatreds don’t necessarily dissolve through dialogue. Instead, they can be stoked to white-hot intensity.

Here at home, Sandberg and Facebook are objects of progressive scorn. Sandberg in particular faces online wrath. In articles appearing everywhere from the New York Times and the Washington Post to The Nation and The New Republic, writers have told her that she “can’t have it all” and have derided the “emptiness of leaning in.” They “punctured” her myth and declared that her book has been “discredited for good.”

These commentators are responding to a blockbuster article in the New York Times that exposed how Facebook responded to Russian effort to use Facebook to influence the 2016 election and to Cambridge Analytica’s deceptive efforts to obtain private user data. There is no real evidence that either effort had a meaningful impact on the 2016 election (truly, Russian efforts were “tiny” compared with overall campaign spending), but just as Facebook was hyped in Obama’s 2012 victory, it is hyped in Hillary’s 2016 defeat.

Twitter, quite simply, is flailing. It has drafted an extensive hateful-conduct policy that’s broad enough to encompass an enormous amount of speech on contentious topics yet also vague enough to empower blatant double standards. Thus, Twitter preserves a platform for a man like Louis Farrakhan, who recently called Jews “termites.” When it is specific — as when it bans “targeted misgendering or deadnaming of transgender individuals” — its clear priority is putting its thumb on the scales for social justice.

What is going on? The answer lies in a crucial section of the Times exposé:

But as evidence accumulated that Facebook’s power could also be exploited to disrupt elections, broadcast viral propaganda and inspire deadly campaigns of hate around the globe, Mr. Zuckerberg and Ms. Sandberg stumbled. Bent on growth, the pair ignored warning signs and then sought to conceal them from public view. At critical moments over the last three years, they were distracted by personal projects, and passed off security and policy decisions to subordinates, according to current and former executives.

It turns out that when you give human beings access to public platforms — and when you create a marketplace of ideas — you often unleash forces that you can’t control. Human nature asserts itself.

It also turns out that when you place even idealistic progressive icons in the crosshairs of a public-relations nightmare that threatens their life’s work, they will react defensively. They’ll seek first to preserve their corporation and their reputation. Human nature asserts itself again.

I’ve been critical of the social-media giants. I believe that in the United States they should default in favor of free speech and adopt a First Amendment–based approach to free expression — reminding disgruntled users that they can liberally use the mute and block functions to protect themselves from speech they don’t like.

But I also have a degree of sympathy. Imagine that you’re a Christian and you create a product that you truly believe will not only be commercially successful, but also will enhance people’s lives by leading indirectly to the spread of the Gospel. Imagine that the vast majority of your colleagues and employees share your same Christian worldview and your same hopes regarding the ultimate purpose of your product. Then imagine that your product instead enables a surge in Muslim or Buddhist influence, and is also tied to a surge in hate, divisiveness, and human misery.

Then imagine that you have no real idea how to fix it — how to bring it into alignment with its original purpose.

Our social-media companies face a series of fateful choices. If they choose to be primarily platforms for human expression, they’ll empower many millions of voices that they despise. They’ll facilitate outcomes they may loathe. If, by contrast, they choose to prioritize progressive ideology and progressive outcomes, they’ll limit their reach, their influence, and their wealth. They’ll open themselves up to aggressive competition.

What’s the lesson here? When you empower people, you find that they have their own will. When you seek to control that will, you find that they’ll rebel. The idealism of tech is dead. Human nature killed it. Nobody can have it all.


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