Thursday, July 2, 2020

Social Media and Race Politics

While most of the outrage in our latest political firestorm has been directed at the police, quite a bit has also been directed at Facebook and Twitter. In the past few weeks I have seen at least a dozen articles arguing that both platforms are enabling racism and white supremacy and myriad calls for them to ban "hate speech."

As one example, let me cite the one I just read, by Charles Warzel in the Times:
The architecture of the social network — its algorithmic mandate of engagement over all else, the advantage it gives to divisive and emotionally manipulative content — will always produce more objectionable content at a dizzying scale. . . . Facebook is too big to govern responsibly. There will always be more work to do because Facebook’s design will always produce more hate than anyone could monitor. How do you reform that? 
Warzel quotes various people saying that the problem is that the leadership of those companies is racist:
The platform will reflect the values of the people that make the decisions. If you have people working at the platforms that are bought into perpetuating a system of white supremacy or unwilling to reckon with it, then that’s what it’ll start looking like.
But I agree completely with Siva Vaidhyanathan, who says that the real problem isn't Facebook or Twitter, it's social media as a way of communicating:
You see lots of people putting forth a hopeful idea of a new, humane social media platform to rescue us — one that respects privacy or is less algorithmically coercive. But if we’re being honest, what they’re really proposing at that point is not really social media anymore. I think social media have been bad for humans. And we shouldn’t keep trying to imagine we should either fix or reinvent what is fundamentally a bad idea.
The problem with social media is that they fuse conversation with our friends, something we think (or I think, anyway) ought to be completely free and unregulated, with mass media. They broadcast our private likes and dislikes to the world, sum them together to create agglomerations of feeling, and toss us nuggets from the wide world chosen to intensify whatever beliefs or emotions are driving us to go online in the first place. They may even be shaping our beliefs in ways that we don't really see or understand.

The reason social media are full of racism and hate is that millions of people are racists who hate each other, and the only way to remove their words would be a draconian censorship regime that would probably ruin the whole business. If you've never written anything that would be hurtful to someone, either you don't write much or you're a very strange sort of person. I'm a pretty cautious writer and I try not to offend, but the thought of having my speech regulated by the sort of people who campaign under #StopHateForProfit makes me very worried.

That's why I've completely given up on Facebook; I liked "following" my friends and relations but the flow of political rage after the 2016 election made me queasy, as did the thought of laying my whole network of connections out there for the world to see, plus I found it a terrible format for writing more than a sentence, forcing discourse into the simplest and least nuanced forms.

The thing is, millions of people love social media, and they are supremely useful. My eldest son is plugged into anti-fa and protester networks via Facebook and Youtube and is always way ahead of the news in knowing what is happening; he has developed a feel for which sources are reliable and the things he passes onto me always turn out to be right, sometimes after false versions have been in the news for days.

Plus, Facebook was a lifeline for many people unable to get out and socialize even before the pandemic, and in our world anything that decreases loneliness has to count as a plus.

So I think we are stuck with social media and can of ugly worms they have opened.

To me the only answer is to shift our eyes away from the public discourse and look deeper. Political factions have been trying for centuries to control what is said in the press and by public figures. That is still important – Fox News did a lot more to elect Trump than Russians on Facebook – but with social media ideas can spread directly from person to person without amplification from leaders or public bodies. Control of the commanding heights is not enough. So if you want to end racism, it is not enough to ban it from television and Presidential speeches; you have to change human hearts, one at a time. I think the rage against Facebook is born from recognizing the daunting nature of that task.

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