Book review: ‘Antisocial Media’ by Siva Vaidhyanathan

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Nearly a third of the world’s population use it, but does Facebook disconnect us and undermine democracy?

It would be hard to name any company more adept at connecting the world than Facebook. As its founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg announced (on his own social media platform) in 2017, the Facebook community has passed the two billion mark. And while Zuckerberg is a deft self-publicist, no one could have realistically been taken in by his soothing platitudes on ‘civic engagement’. It wasn’t so much what he said in his 2017 manifesto, as what he didn’t say: which is that Facebook has become a wild frontier hosting the ideologies of the planet-wide rise in nationalism, terrorism, voyeurism and other antisocial behaviour.

So says author Siva Vaidhyanathan in ‘Antisocial Media: How Facebook Disconnects Us and Undermines Democracy’ (Oxford University Press, £18.99, ISBN 9780190841164), a book that examines the fundamental question of where Facebook went wrong. How did it transform itself from an innocent social media site hacked together by Harvard students to a hotbed of anti-enlightenment and radicalisation?

What should be a textbook case study of a company that alchemically converted the intellectual capital of images and words into untold wealth and influence, becomes an analysis that concludes: “no company has contributed more to the paradoxical collapse of basic tenets of deliberation and democracy.” There is no better example than ‘fake news’, which is a form of propaganda at its best, information pollution at its worst. When stories have a high emotional register, the content is amplified because the platform is specifically engineered to promote items with strong responses. This hardly matters if it is a YouTube video of a puppy playing the piano, but the same goes for hate speech.

Add to this a phenomenon what Vaidhyanathan describes as the ‘filter bubble’ and you have essentially the world’s largest source of untrustworthy information. The filter bubble is a feedback loop where consumers are given more of the content they want and less of what they don’t want, creating an echo chamber that reinforces prejudice and closes the mind to valid alternatives. And while the author admits that these bubbles are hard to analyse, his deeply held suspicion is that “Facebook tends to comfort and reward the common habits that push us to convene with those who think like we do”. Truth and trust become fragmented, while credibility and authority “become quaint weak concepts”.

With 30 per cent of the world’s population on Facebook, Vaidhyanathan contends that the platform could become the operating system of our lives. And while it’s fun to catch up with old school friends, its mediated cacophony is a powerful tool for the vocal minority to quickly subvert silent majorities. Zuckerberg himself is curiously complacent. Facebook, he says, “is just too big to govern. We are victims of its success.”

Vaidhyanathan sees things differently, describing the Facebook story as “an indictment of how social media has fostered the deterioration of democratic and intellectual culture around the world”.

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