Imagine that you’re a new-media entrepreneur in Europe a few centuries back, and you come up with the idea of using moveable type in your printing press to make it easier and cheaper to produce more copies of books. If there are any would-be media critics in Europe taking note of your technological innovation, some will be optimists. The optimists will predict that cheap books will hasten the spread of knowledge and maybe even fuel a Renaissance of intellectual inquiry. They’ll predict the rise of newspapers, perhaps, and anticipate increased solidarity of the citizenry thanks to shared information and shared culture.
Others will be pessimists—they’ll foresee that the cheap spread of printed information will undermine institutions, will lead to doubts about the expertise of secular and religious leaders (who are, after all, better educated and better trained to handle the information that’s now finding its way into ordinary people’s hands). The pessimists will guess, quite reasonably, that cheap printing will lead to more publication of false information, heretical theories, and disruptive doctrines, which in turn may lead, ultimately, to destructive revolutions and religious schisms. The gloomiest pessimists will see, in cheap printing and later in the cheapness of paper itself—making it possible for all sorts of “fake news” to be spread–the sources of centuries of strife and division. And because the pain of the bad outcomes of cheap books is sharper and more attention-grabbing than contemplation of the long-term benefits of having most of the population know how to read, the gloomiest pessimists will seem to many to possess the more clear-eyed vision of the present and of the future. (Spoiler alert: both the optimists and the pessimists were right.)
Fast-forward to the 21st century, and this is just where we’re finding ourselves when we look at public discussion and public policy centering on the internet, digital technologies, and social media. Two recent books written in the aftermath of recent revelations about mischievous and malicious exploitation of social-media platforms—especially Facebook and Twitter—exemplify this zeitgeist in different ways. And although both of these books are filled with valuable information and insights, they also yield (in different ways) to the temptation to see social media as the source of more harm than good. Which leaves me wanting very much both to praise what’s great in these two books (which I read back-to-back) and to criticize them where I think they’ve gone too far over to the Dark Side.
The first book is Clint Watts’s MESSING WITH THE ENEMY: SURVIVING IN A SOCIAL MEDIA WORLD OF HACKERS, TERRORISTS, RUSSIANS, AND FAKE NEWS. Watts is a West Point graduate and former FBI agent who’s an expert on today’s information warfare, including efforts by state actors (notably Russia) and non-state actors (notably Al Qaeda and ISIS) to exploit social media both to confound enemies and to recruit and inspire allies. I first heard of the book when I attended a conference at Stanford this spring where Watts—who has testified several times on these issues—was a presenter. His presentation was an eye-opening, erasing whatever lingering doubt I might have had about the scope and organization of those who want to use today’s social media for malicious or destructive ends.
In MESSING WITH THE ENEMY Watts relates in a bracing yet matter-of-fact tone not only his substantive knowledge as a researcher and expert in social-media information warfare but also his first-person experiences in engaging with foreign terrorists active on social-media platforms and in being harassed by terrorists (mostly virtually) for challenging them in public exchanges. “The internet brought people together,” Watts writes, “but today social media is tearing everyone apart.” He notes the irony of social media’s receiving premature and overgenerous credit for democratic movements against various dictatorships but later being exploited as platforms for anti-democratic and terrorist initiatives:
“Not long after many across the world applauded Facebook for toppling dictators during the Arab Spring revolutions of 2010 and 2011, it proved to be a propaganda platform and operational communications network for the largest terrorist mobilization in world history, bringing tens of thousands of foreign fighters under the Islamic State’s banner in Syria and Iraq.”
And it wasn’t just non-state terrorists who learned quickly how to leverage social-media platforms; an increasingly activist and ambitious Russia, under the direction of Russian President Vladimir Putin, did so as well. Watts argues persuasively that Russia not only assisted and sponsored relatively inexpensive disinformation and propaganda campaigns using the social-media platforms to encourage divisiveness and lack of faith in government institutions (most successfully with the Brexit vote and the 2016 American elections) but also actively supported the hacking of the Democratic National Committee computer network which led to email dumps (using Wikileaks as a cutout). The security breaches, together with “computational propaganda”—social-media “bots” that mimicked real users in spreading disinformation and dissension—played an important role in the U.S. election, Watts writes, helping “the race remain close at times when Trump might have fallen completely out of the running.” Even so, Watts doesn’t believe Russian propaganda efforts alone would have tilted the outcome of the election—what it did instead was hobble support for Clinton so much that when, when FBI Director James Comey announced, one week before the election, that the Clinton email-server investigation had reopened, the Clinton campaign couldn’t recover. “Without the Comey letter,” he writes, “I believe Clinton would have won the election.” Later in the book he connects the dots more explicitly: “Without the Russian influence effort, I believe Trump would not have been within striking distance of Clinton on Election Day. Russian influence, the Clinton email investigation, and luck brought Trump a victory—all of these forces combined.”
Where Watts’s book focuses on bad actors who exploit the openness of social-media platforms for various malicious ends, Siva Vaidhyanathan’s ANTISOCIAL MEDIA: HOW FACEBOOK DISCONNECTS US AND UNDERMINES DEMOCRACY argues that the platforms—and especially the Facebook platform—is inherently corrosive to democracy. (Full disclosure: I went to school with Vaidhyanathan, worked on our student newspaper with him, and I consider him a friend.) Acknowledging his intellectual debt to his mentor, the late social critic Neil Postman, Vaidhyanathan blames the negative impacts of various exploitations of Facebook and other platforms on the platforms themselves. Postman was a committed technopessimist, and Vaidhyanathan takes time to chart in ANTISOCIAL MEDIA how Postman’s general skepticism about new information technologies ultimately led his younger colleague to temper his originally optimistic view of the internet and digital technologies generally. If you read Vaidhyanathan’s work over time, you find in his writing a progressively darker view of the internet and its ongoing evolution, taking a significantly more pessimistic turn around the time of his 2011 book, THE GOOGLIZATION OF EVERYTHING (AND WHY WE SHOULD WORRY). In his earlier book, Vaidhyanathan took pains to be as fair-minded as he could in raising questions about Google and whether it can or should be trusted to play such an outsized role in our culture as the mediator of so much of our informational resources. He was skeptical (not unreasonably) about whether Google’s confidence in both its own good intentions and its own expertise is sufficient reason to trust the company—not least because a powerful company can stay around as a gatekeeper for the internet long past the time its well-intentioned founders depart or retire.
With ANTISOCIAL MEDIA, Vaidhyanathan cuts Mark Zuckerberg (and his COO, Sheryl Sandberg) rather less of a break. Facebook’s leadership, as I read Vaidhyanathan’s take, is both more arrogant than Google’s and more heedless of the consequences of its commitment to connect everyone in the world through the platform. Synthesizing a full range of recent critiques of Facebook’s design as a platform, he relentlessly characterizes Facebook as driving us to shallow, reactive reactions to one another rather than promoting reflective discourse that might improve or promote our shared values. Facebook, in his view, distracts us instead of inspiring us to think. It’s addictive for us in something like the same way gambling or potato chips can be addictive for us. Facebook privileges the visual (photographs, images, GIFs, and the like), he insists, over the verbal and discursive.
And of course even the verbal content is either filter-bubbly—as when we convene in private Facebook groups to share, say, our unhappiness about current politics—or divisive (so that we share and intensify our outrage about other people’s bad behavior, maybe including screenshots of something awful someone has said elsewhere on Facebook or on Twitter). Vaidhyanathan suggests that at one point our political discourse as ordinary citizens was more rational and reflective, but now is more emotion- and rage-driven and divisive. Me, I think the emotionalism and rage was always there.
Even when Vaidhyanathan allows that there may be something positive about one’s interactions on Facebook, he can’t quite help himself from being reductive and dismissive about it:
“Nor is Facebook bad for everyone all the time. In fact, it’s benefited millions individually. Facebook has also allowed people to find support and community despite being shunned by friends and family or being geographically isolated. Facebook is still our chief source of cute baby and puppy photos. Babies and puppies are among the things that make life worth living. We could all use more images of cuteness and sweetness to get us through our days. On Facebook babies and puppies run in the same column as serious personal appeals for financial help with medical care, advertisements for and against political candidates, bogus claims against science, and appeals to racism and violence.”
In other words, Facebook may occasionally make us feel good for the right reasons (babies and puppies) but that’s about the best most people can hope for from the platform. Vaidhyanathan has a particular antipathy towards Candy Crush, which you can connect to your Facebook account—a video game that certainly seems vacuous, but also seems innocuous to me. (I’ve never played it myself.)
Given his antipathy towards Facebook, you might think that Vaidhyanathan’s book is just another reworking of the moral-panic tomes that we’ve seen a lot of in the last year or two, which decry the internet and social media much the same way previous generations of would-be social critics complained about television, or the movies, or rock music, or comic books. (Hi, Jonathan Taplin! Hi, Franklin Foer!) But that’s a mistake, primarily because Vaidhyanathan digs deep into choices—some technical and some policy-driven—that Facebook has made that facilitated bad actors’ using the platform maliciously and destructively. Plus, Vaidhyanathan, to his credit, gives attention to how oppressive governments have learned to use the platform to stifle dissent and mute political opposition. (Watts notes this as well.) I was particularly pleased to see his calling out how Facebook is used in India, in the Philippines, and in Cambodia—all countries where I’ve been privileged to work directly with pro-democracy NGOs.
What I find particularly valuable is Vaidhyanathan’s exploration of Facebook’s advertising policies and their effect on political ads—I learned plenty from ANTISOCIAL MEDIA about the company’s “Custom Audiences from Customer Lists,” including this disturbing bit:
“Facebook’s Custom Audiences from Customer Lists also gives campaigns an additional power. By entering email addresses of those unlikely to support a candidate or those likely to support an opponent, a campaign can narrowly target groups as small as twenty people and dissuade them from voting at all. ‘We have three major voter suppression operations under way,’ a campaign official told Bloomberg News just weeks before the election. The campaign was working to convince white leftists and liberals who had supported socialist Bernie Sanders in his primary bid against Clinton, young women, and African American voters not to go to the polls on election day. The campaign carefully targeted messages on Facebook to each of these groups. Clinton’s former support for international trade agreements would raise doubts among leftists. Her husband’s documented affairs with other women might soften support for Clinton among young women….”
What one saw in Facebook’s deployment of the Custom Audiences feature is something fundamentally new and disturbing:
“Custom Audiences is a powerful tool that was not available to President Barack Obama and Governor Mitt Romney when they ran for president in 2012. It was developed in 2014 to help Facebook reach the takeoff point in profits and revenue. Because Facebook develops advertising tools for firms that sell shoes and cosmetics and only later invites political campaigns to use them, ‘they never worried about the worst-case abuse of this capability, unaccountable, unreviewable political ads,’ said Professor David Carroll of the Parsons School of Design. Such ads are created on a massive scale, targeted at groups as small as twenty, and disappear, so they are never examined or debated.”
Vaidhyanathan quite properly criticizes Mark Zuckerberg’s late-to-the-party recognition that perhaps Facebook may much more of a home to divisiveness and political mischief (and general unhappiness) than he previously had been willing to admit. And he’s right to say that some of Zuckerberg’s framing of new design directions for Facebook may be as likely to cause harm (e.g., more self-isolation in filter bubbles) than good. “The existence of hundreds of Facebook groups devoted to convincing others that the earth is flat should have raised some doubt among Facebook’s leaders that empowering groups might not enhance the information ecosystem of Facebook,” he writes. “Groups are as likely to divide us and make us dumber as any other aspect of Facebook.”
But here I have to take issue with my friend Siva, because he overlooks or dismisses the possibility that Facebook’s increasing support for “groups” of like-minded users may ultimately add up to a net social positive. For example, the #metoo groups seem to have enabled more women (and men) to come forward and talk frankly about their experiences with sexual assault and to begin to hold perpetrators of sexual assault and sexual harassment accountable. The fact that some folks also use Facebook groups for more frivolous or wrongheaded reasons (like promoting flat-earthism) strikes me as comparatively inconsequential.
Vaidhyanathan’s also too quick, it seems to me, to dismiss the potential for Facebook and other platforms to facilitate political and social reform in transitional democracies and developing countries. Yes, bad governments can use social media to promote support for their regimes, and I don’t think it’s particularly remarkable that oppressive governments (or non-state actors like ISIS) learn to use new communications media maliciously. Governments may frequently be slow, but they’re not invariably stupid—so it’s no big surprise, for example that Cambodian prime minister Hun Sen has figured out how to use his Facebook page to drum up support for his one-party rule, which has driven out opposition press and the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party.
But Vaidhyanathan overlooks how some activists are using Facebook’s private groups to organize reform or opposition activities. In researching this review, I reached out to friends and colleagues in Cambodia, the Philippines and elsewhere to confirm whether the platform is useful to them—certainly they’re cautious about what they say in public on Facebook, but they definitely use private groups for some organizational purposes. What makes the platform useful to activists is that it’s accessible, easy to use, and amenable to posting multimedia sources (like pictures and videos of police and soldiers acting brutally towards protestors). And it’s not just images–when I worked with activists in Cambodia on developing a citizen-rights framework as a response to their government’s abrupt initiation of “cybercrime” legislation (really an effort to suppress dissenting speech), I suggested they work collaboratively in the MediaWiki software that Wikipedia’s editors use. But the Cambodian activists quickly discovered that Facebook was an easier platform for technically less proficient users to learn quickly and use to review draft texts together. I was surprised at this, but also encouraged. Even though I had my own doubts whether Facebook was the right tool for the job, I figured they didn’t need yet another American trying to tell them how to manage their own collaborations.
Like Watts’s book, Vaidhyanathan’s is strongest where it’s built on independent research that doesn’t merely echo what other critics have said. And both books are weakest when they uncritically import notions like Eli Pariser’s “filter bubble” hypothesis or the social-media-makes-us-depressed hypothesis. (Both these notions are echoes of previous moral panics about previous new media, including broadcasting in the 20th century and cheap paper in the 19th. And both have been challenged by researchers.) Vaidhyanathan’s so certain of the meme that Facebook’s Free Basics program is an assault on network neutrality that he mostly doesn’t investigate the program itself in any detail. The result is that his book (to this reader, anyway) seems to conflate Free Basics (a collection of low-bandwidth resources that Facebook provided a zero-rated platform for) with Facebook Zero (a zero-rated low-bandwidth version of Facebook by itself). In contrast, the Wikipedia articles on Free Basics and Facebook Zero lead off with warnings not to confuse the two.
In addition to the strengths and weaknesses the two books share, they also have a certain rhetorical approach in common—largely, in my view, because both authors want to push for reform, and because they want to challenge with the sunny-yet-unwarranted optimism with which Zuckerberg and Sandberg and other boosters have characterized social media. In effect, both authors seem to take the approach that, as we learn to be much more critical of social-media platforms, we don’t need to worry about throwing out the baby with the bathwater—because, really, there is no baby. (If we bail on Facebook altogether, it’s only the frequent baby pictures that we’d lose.)
Even so, both books also share an unwillingness to call for simple opposition to Facebook and other social-media platforms merely because they’re misused. Watts argues persuasively instead for more coherent and effective positive messaging about American politics and culture—of the sort that used to be the province of the United States Information Agency. (I think he’d be happy if the USIA were revived; I would be too.) He also calls for an “equivalent of Consumer Reports” to “be created for social media feeds,” which also strikes me as a fine idea.
Vaidhyanathan’s reform agenda is less optimistic. For one thing, he’s dismissive of “media literacy” as a solution because he doubts “we could even agree on what that term means and that there would be some way to train nearly two billion people to distinguish good from bad content.” He has some near-term suggestions—for example, he’d like to see an antitrust-type initiative to break up Facebook, although it’s unclear to me whether multiple competing Facebooks or a disassembled Facebook would be less hospitable to the kind of shallowness and abuses he sees in the platform’s current incarnation. But mostly he calls for a kind of cultural shift driven by social critics and researchers like himself:
“This will be a long process. Those concerned about the degradation of public discourse and the erosion of trust in experts and institutions will have to mount a campaign to challenge the dominant techno-fundamentalist myth. The long, slow process of changing minds, cultures, and ideologies never yields results in the short term. It sometimes yields results over decades or centuries.”
I agree that it frequently takes decades or even longer to truly assess how new media affect our culture for good or for ill. But as long as we’re contemplating all those years of effort, I see no reason not to put media literacy on the agenda as well. I think there’s plenty of evidence that people can learn to read what they see on the internet critically and do better than simply cherry-pick sources that agree with them—a vice that, it must be said, predates social media and the internet itself. The result of increasing skepticism about media platforms and the information we find in them may also lead (as Watts warns us) to more distrust of “experts” and “expertise,” with the result that true expertise is more likely to be unfairly and unwisely devalued. But my own view is that skepticism and critical thinking—even about experts with expertise—is generally positive. For example, it may be annoying to today’s physicians that patients increasingly resort to the internet about their real or imagined health problems—but engaged patients, even if they have to be walked back from foolish ideas again and again, are probably better off than the more passive health-care consumers of previous generations.
I think Vaidhyanathan is right, ultimately, to urge that we continue to think about social media critically and skeptically, over decades—and, you know, forever. But I think Watts offers the best near-term tactical solution:
“On social media, the most effective way to challenge a troll comes from a method that’s taught in intelligence analysis. To sharpen an analyst’s skills and judgment, a supervisor or instructor will ask the subordinate two questions when he or she provides an assessment: ‘What do those who disagree with your assessment think, and why?’ The analyst must articulate a competing viewpoint. The second question is even more important: ‘Under what conditions, specifically, would your assessment be wrong?’ […] When I get a troll on Facebook, I’ll inquire, ‘Under what circumstance would you admit you were wrong?’ or ‘What evidence would convince you otherwise?” If they don’t answer or can’t articulate their answer, then I disregard them on that topic indefinitely.”
Watts’s heuristic strikes me as the perfect first entry in the syllabus for media literacy in particular and for criticism of social media in general.
In sum, I think both MESSING WITH THE ENEMY and ANTISOCIAL MEDIA deserve to be on every internet-focused policymaker’s must-read list this season. I also think it’s best that readers honor these books by reading them with the same clear-eyed skepticism that their authors preach.
Image credit: Ink Drop