DISCLAIMER: The information and views set out in this article are those of the author(s); and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Centre for Policy Studies or the Indian Institute of Technology Bombay.
By Anurag Mehra
Should social media and free, instant messaging apps be banned? History tells us that many “dangerous” things have been regulated, sometimes quite strongly, to the point of being eliminated socially. Think guns and tobacco. Then why not social media?
But first, the answer to the main question. What do we do with a technology when it is misused rampantly? In fact, so rampantly that it eclipses the good uses it was intended for, not necessarily in terms of volume of usage but in terms of causing grievous harm to people and societal institutions. Three good reasons, operating at different levels, can be offered in support of a policy that outlaws social media. First, that social media platforms are primary vehicles for the rapid, uncontrollable propagation of misinformation and conspiracy theories that often result in hatred, violence and death. Second, engagement with these platforms is giving rise to addictions and anxieties, and making people lose critical thinking skills. Third, and most important, social media platforms are the central interfaces through which the current form of capitalism operates in the digital age.
Look at the Covid-19 pandemic caused by a novel coronavirus. Social media of all kinds, notably Facebook and Twitter, are flooded with misleading “information” and pseudoscientific “remedies” (Mehra, 2020b). The most widely used free messaging app, WhatsApp (owned by Facebook), then spreads this misinformation everywhere. Basic home remedies for cough and cold are being touted as miracle cures. Some groups are swelling with pride, offering cow urine as a prophylactic, and creating “cosmic sound waves” by chanting and clanging metal objects; these ‘waves’, they insist, have apparently been detected by fictional satellites and have caused the coronavirus to “weaken and recede”. And all of this can be explained by “ancient science older than 10,000 years” (Mehra, 2020a). Alternate medicine enthusiasts of many shades – ayurvedic, unani, homeopathic – have also pitched in with their wares (Mehra, 2020b). Ordinary folks, not to be left behind, have suggested that we imbibe marijuana, alcohol or even bleach to kill this rogue virus.
We have so many of these miracle cures and home remedies that it makes the urgent global search for a vaccine and cure look like a fool’s errand. As this mound of digital garbage grows, so does the number of people who “learn” from this about the disease and the virus. And voila! We have instant experts and scholars, who share and propagate their wisdom far and wide based on this crowdsourced knowledge (Mehra, 2020a). The question then arises: whatever happened to elementary rationality – the kind that makes you look left and right when you cross a road? Some would say that the confidence to propagate unconfirmed information is derived from the recognition that “your friends” are doing it too, because they also “believe in it” (Singal, 2017). The urge to spread it, in the context of the virus, is dominantly driven by the fear of a fatal disease and the hope that it can be defeated.
Social media also provides an arena where untruths are unleashed into the public sphere by influential people. A major conspiracy theory, encouraged by some US politicians, asserts that the virus is a bioweapon developed by China (Cotton, 2020). Another suggests that the bioweapon was actually developed in the United States (Zhao, 2020) (this is being pushed by Chinese officials). Meanwhile American President Donald Trump made his own contribution by calling the novel coronavirus the Chinese virus (Trump, 2020).
The consequences of the current misinformation pandemic will be harsh and long-term. We are no longer confined only to the potential threat of people indulging in foolhardy and reckless behaviour, resulting from a false confidence that they have made themselves immune to the coronavirus, thanks to the above mentioned “remedies” and pseudo knowledge. Lethal consequences can already be seen – people killing themselves by self medication using toxic antimalarial drugs (Piller, 2020), and hundreds dying because they drank methanol to kill the virus (Associated Press, 2020). The hoarding of masks, gloves, sanitizers, and possible medicines (Health and Human Services USA, 2020) is posing a grave threat to those in actual need of these items. Conspiracy theories have provided novel targets for some people to indulge in xenophobic behavior (Stevens, 2020) – against those who are of Chinese origin or “look Chinese” (Altaf, 2020), and those who eat meat (Mukherjee, 2020).
It is not just this pandemic. We have been here before in different contexts. At the level of culture and politics, elections have been influenced in several countries by pushing fake narratives promoting hatred against specific communities (Bengani, 2019; Savage, 2019; Avelar, 2019; Verge, 2016; Doubek, 2020). Public spaces and discourse have been poisoned (Mehra, 2019a), apparently beyond repair, by culture warriors and troll armies hired by the propaganda cells of political parties. The mechanisms of democracy are drowning in the disinformation that is churned everyday on social media platforms. We are in the middle of an epistemological nightmare in which history is being re-written furiously (Mehra, 2020a) and where truth and lies are hard to distinguish from each other (Mehra, 2019b). Unfortunately, it has also been demonstrated that reason and rationality cannot overcome this malaise of misinformation (Rohn, 2018), and that false news spreads much faster than real news (Vosoughi, Roy and Aral, 2018).
Social media, like Facebook, Instagram, Twitter (and their many smaller counterparts) were meant ostensibly to enable faster communication between groups of people interested in specific things, and to create a “sharing economy”. Users posting text messages, images, videos, showing “likes” and commenting on what others have posted were supposedly “engaging” with each other. Above all, these platforms were meant to “connect” to friends and followers. But what did we actually get?
At an experiential level – the way we “consume” social media – can be likened to an addiction (Alter, 2017) to mindless scrolling, and a timeless wait for the next high, whether in the form of a like or a comment. Envy and vanity, driven by comparisons with fellow users, generate anxiety and stress. This is what Zuboff (2019) calls “being alive in the gaze of others because it’s the only life one has, even when it hurts” (Harris, 2019). We, in turn, hurt others by indulging in abusive language and humiliating them. Trolling has become a norm. Our real friends and activities have been significantly replaced by virtual ones (Chesak, 2018). We are drowning in a trivial culture thanks to fragmented attention spans (Wu, 2016) largely susceptible only to stimulation by byte sized TikTok videos. What we are left with is an inability to think deeply or critically, and a constant search for instant dopamine hits.
On a structural level, what is it that these platforms actually do? They extract our personal data and process it in accordance with their revenue models (Eavis, 2016), by showing us commercial and even political advertisements (Newton, 2020) customised for individuals. They create profiles (Maheshwari, 2019) of our personality and behavior, and attempt to influence our choices; they also constantly keep us under surveillance. Our data is shared deliberately or “inadvertently” (Sanders & Patterson, 2019) with third parties, and often with state agencies. Our engagement with these platforms is based on the greatest invasion of our own privacy. This has allowed the technology companies that run these platforms to become gigantic, monstrous corporations, with tremendous influence over governments, policymakers and the “market”. Zuboff (2019) calls this surveillance capitalism, which operates by using our behavioral data to predict and modify what we will do “now, soon or later”. She says that when this operates on a large scale, it “erodes democracy from within because, without autonomy in action and in thought, we have little capacity for the moral judgment and critical thinking necessary for a democratic society.” Why would we want to sustain such a world?
In light of these observations, one can make a viable case for the complete abolition of social media platforms. They are the key tools through which people are connected to the machinery of surveillance capitalism. This is also a scenario where it is difficult, even impossible, to apply moderate measures like regulation, which raises questions of who polices these vast networks and decides what is acceptable and what is not. Outlawing these platforms completely would be a cleaner measure. This may seem like a Luddite demand, but it is not: why should we tolerate technologies that have historically been shown to be destructive? If social media ceased to exist, or if free messaging apps were bareboned to plain text, humankind would still get along with email, SMS, telephony, and revert to predominantly reading fact-checked material as we have been doing with newspapers and books. We will carry on in a cleaner and much more sane version of the internet.
The abolition of social media might just be the first big step in disrupting the game that surveillance capitalism has forced us to play.
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