Opinion | Democracy Is Weakening Right in Front of Us

Jack Balkin, a law professor at Yale, writes in an email:

Some of the most troubling features of social media come from business models based on surveillance and monetization of personal data. Social media will not improve as long as their current surveillance-based business models give them the wrong incentives.

Trump, in Balkin’s view, “showed how to use social media for demagogic ends to harm democracy.”

But, he added,

Trump’s success built on decades of polarization strategies that relied on predigital media — talk radio and cable. Without talk radio and Fox News, Trump would have been a far less effective demagogue.

Do social media drive polarization? Balkin’s answer:

The larger and more profound causes of polarization in the United States are not social media, which really become pervasive only around 2008 to 2010, but rather decades of deliberate attempts to polarize politics to gain political power. Once social media became pervasive in the last decade, however, they have amplified existing trends.

Robert Frank, professor emeritus of economics at Cornell, is a leading proponent of the argument that the current business model of Facebook and other social media is a significant contributor to political and social dysfunction.

Writing on these pages, Frank argued on Feb. 14 that the economic incentives of “companies in digital markets differ so sharply from those of other businesses.”

Digital aggregators like Facebook, he continued,

make money not by charging for access to content but by displaying it with finely targeted ads based on the specific types of things people have already chosen to view. If the conscious intent were to undermine social and political stability, this business model could hardly be a more effective weapon.

Frank notes that the algorithms digital companies use to

choose individual-specific content are crafted to maximize the time people spend on a platform. As the developers concede, Facebook’s algorithms are addictive by design and exploit negative emotional triggers. Platform addiction drives earnings, and hate speech, lies and conspiracy theories reliably boost addiction.

The profit motive in digital media, Frank contends, drives policies that result in “the spread of misinformation, hate speech and conspiracy theories.”

Eric B. Schnurer, president of Public Works LLC, a policy consulting firm, is similarly critical of the digital business model, writing in an email:

The social media companies discovered that there were limited means for making money off social media, settling on an advertising-based model that required increasing and retaining “eyeballs,” which quickly led to the realization that the best way to do so is to exploit nonrational behavior and create strong reactions rather than reasoned discourse.

Digital firms, in Schnurer’s analysis,

have now metastasized into this model where their customers are their raw material, which they mine, at no expense, and sell to others for further exploitation; it is a wholly extractive and exploitive business model, whatever high-minded rhetoric the companies want to spread over it about creating “sharing” and “community.”

There were early warnings of the dangers posed by new digital technologies.

Shoshana Zuboff, professor emeritus at Harvard Business School, pursued a line of inquiry as far back as 1981 with “The Psychological and Organizational Implications of Computer Mediated Work” that led to the broad conclusions she drew in her 2016 paper, “Big other: surveillance capitalism and the prospects of an information civilization.”

“Big data” is above all the foundational component in a deeply intentional and highly consequential new logic of accumulation that I call surveillance capitalism. This new form of information capitalism aims to predict and modify human behavior as a means to produce revenue and market control. Surveillance capitalism has gradually constituted itself during the last decade, embodying a new social relations and politics that have not yet been well delineated or theorized.

From a different vantage point, Christopher Bail, a professor of sociology at Duke and director of the university’s Polarization Lab, writes in his forthcoming book “Breaking the Social Media Prism” that a key constituency is made up of those who “feel marginalized, lonely, or disempowered in their off-line lives.”

Social media, Bail writes in his book,

offer such social outcasts another path. Even if the fame extremists generate has little significance beyond small groups of other outcasts, the research my colleagues and I conducted suggests that social media give extremists a sense of purpose, community, and — most importantly — self-worth.

The social media prism, Bail writes,

fuels status-seeking extremists, mutes moderates who think there is little to be gained by discussing politics on social media, and leaves most of us with profound misgivings about those on the other side, and even about the scope of polarization itself.

One of the striking findings of the research conducted at Bail’s Polarization Lab is that contrary to expectations, increased exposure to the views of your ideological opponents does not result in more open-mindedness.

Bail emailed me to point out that “we surveyed 1,220 Republicans and Democrats” and

offered half of them financial compensation to follow bots we created that exposed them to messages from opinion leaders from the opposing political party for one month. When we resurveyed them at the end of the study, neither Democrats nor Republicans became more moderate. To the contrary, Republicans became substantially more conservative and Democrats became slightly more liberal.

Bail also offered an analysis of this phenomenon:

The reason I think taking people out of their echo chambers made them more polarized — not less — is because it exposes them to extremists from the other side who threaten their sense of status.

In his book Bail put it this way, “People do not carefully review new information about politics when they are exposed to opposing views on social media and adapt their views accordingly.” Instead, he observes, “they experience stepping outside their echo chamber as an attack upon their identity.”

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