This Is So Much Bigger Than Facebook
Data misuse is a feature, not a bug—and it’s plaguing our entire culture.
In the 17-months-long conversation Americans have been having about social media’s effects on democracy, two distinct sets of problems have emerged. The ones getting the most attention are bad-actor problems—where someone breaks the rules and manipulates a social-media system for their own nefarious ends. Macedonian teenagers create sensational and false content to profit from online ad sales. Disinformation experts plan rallies and counterrallies, calling Americans into the streets to scream at each other. Botnets amplify posts and hashtags, building the appearance of momentum behind online campaigns like #releasethememo. Such problems are the charismatic megafauna of social-media dysfunction.
People are mean online, and bullying, harassment, and mob behavior make online spaces unusable for many people. People tend to get stuck in cocoons of unchallenging, ideologically compatible information online, whether these are “filter bubbles” created by algorithms, or simply echo chambers built through homophily and people’s friendships with “birds of a feather.” Conspiracy theories thrive online, and searching for information can quickly lead to extreme and disturbing content.
If you want to know more about who’s watching you, download Ghostery, a browser extension that tracks and can block these “third-party” trackers.
We need an ecosystem that encourages competitors to existing social-media platforms, which means ensuring a right to export data from existing social networks and new software that lets us experiment with new services while maintaining contacts on existing ones. We need to treat personally identifiable information less like a resource to be exploited and more like toxic waste, which must be carefully managed, as Maciej Ceglowski has proposed. This may require a digital EPA, as Franklin Foer, Paul Ford, and others have argued—a prospect that would be more appealing if the actual EPA wasn’t currently being gutted.
Tribalism, manipulation, and misinformation are well-established forces in American politics, all predating the web. But something fundamental has changed. Never before have we had the technological infrastructure to support the weaponization of emotion on a global scale. The people who built this infrastructure have a moral obligation to own up to what they’ve done.