Laying Blame: Social Media has fucked-up the very fabric of America

I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately. It's clear that social media has become deeply embedded in American society, influencing how we connect and share information. However, the algorithms that personalize our feeds create isolated echo chambers, reinforcing existing beliefs and hindering constructive conversations. This, coupled with the rampant spread of misinformation and disinformation, erodes trust in institutions and fuels confusion around important issues.

I recently started reading Kara Swisher's new book titled Burn Book and the prologue delves extensively into this very subject.

Facebook was supposed to be a tool to create “stronger relationships with those you love, a stronger economy with more opportunities, and a stronger society that reflects all of our values.”

All these companies began with a gauzy credo to change the world. And they had indeed done that, but in ways they hadn’t imagined at the start, increasingly with troubling consequences from a flood of misinformation to a society becoming isolated and addicted to its gadgets. […] “Facebook, as well as Twitter and Google’s YouTube and the rest, have become the digital arms dealers of the modern age,” I wrote in one of my first columns after I joined the New York Times as a columnist in 2018. “They have mutated human communication, so that connecting people has too often become about pitting them against one another and turbocharged that discord to an unprecedented and damaging volume. They have weaponized the First Amendment. They have weaponized civic discourse. And they have weaponized, most of all, politics.” […] Most of all, they often dismissed any weaponization as “unintended consequences.” […] Every technology carries its own negativity, which is invented at the same time as technical progress.”

Let me be clear: Hitler didn’t need Instagram. Mussolini didn’t need to tweet. Murderous autocrats did not need to Snapchat their way to infamy. But just imagine if they’d had those supercharged tools. Well, Trump did, and he won the election, thanks in large part to social media. […] And Trump didn’t do it alone. Purveyors of propaganda, both foreign and domestic, saw an opportunity to spread lies and misinformation. Today, malevolent actors continue to game the platforms, and there’s still no real solution in sight, because these powerful platforms are doing exactly what they were designed to do. […] I love tech, I breathe tech. And I believe in tech. But for tech to fulfill its promise, founders and executives who ran their creations needed to put more safety tools in place. They needed to anticipate consequences more. Or at all. They needed to acknowledge that online rage might extend into the real world in increasingly scary ways.

Instead, far too many of these founders and innovators were careless, an attitude best summarized by the ethos on early Facebook office posters: “Move fast and break things.” I know it’s a software slogan and it would later change (Facebook CEO and co-founder Mark Zuckerberg jokingly changed it to “Move fast with stable infra,” as in infrastructure, in 2014), but I still think it reflects a deep-seated childishness. Children like to break things. I’d have initially preferred “Move fast and change things.” Or, even more adult, “Move fast and fix things.” But they decided to start with “break,” and such carelessness has led to damage around the globe that, in turn, helped me understand what was happening to our own country. In August of 2016, investigative journalist Maria Ressa gave Facebook alarming data about people in the Philippines who were being targeted for graphic online abuse after criticizing President Duterte’s drug war. Facebook did not take down the pages until two years after her report. […] Each year since has brought bigger and fresher tech messes. Twitter, stupidly renamed X, has mutated into a platform where the richest man in the world offers his retweet support to racist, sexist, and homophobic conspiracies. AI’s deep fakes and misinformation open a virtual Pandora’s box, with the potential to unleash troubles to plague humankind faster than any actual plague. Chinese-owned TikTok makes parents feel better by employing safety features for teens, while the site could be extending the Communist Party’s surveillance state across the globe, according to increasing numbers of government officials I have interviewed around the world. 

Over time, I’ve come to settle on a theory that tech people embrace one of two pop culture visions of the future. First, there’s the “Star Wars” view, which pits the forces of good against the Dark Side. And, as we know, the Dark Side puts up a disturbingly good fight. While the Death Star gets destroyed, heroes die and then it inevitably gets rebuilt. Evil, in fact, does tend to prevail.

Then there’s the “Star Trek” view, where a crew works together to travel to distant worlds like an interstellar Benetton commercial, promoting tolerance and convincing villains not to be villains. It often works. I am, no surprise, a Trekkie, and I am not alone. At a 2007 AllThingsD conference well-known tech columnist Walt Mossberg and I hosted, Apple legend Steve Jobs appeared onstage and said: “I like Star Trek. I want Star Trek.” 

Now Jobs is long dead, and the “Star Wars” version seems to have won. Even if it was never the intention, tech companies became key players in killing our comity and stymieing our politics, our government, our social fabric, and most of all, our minds, by seeding isolation, outrage, and addictive behavior. Innocuous boy-kings who wanted to make the world a better place and ended up cosplaying Darth Vader feels like science fiction.

Burn Book, part memoir and part tech industry history, dives into the rise of Silicon Valley's titans and the impact of their creations.

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