The End of Real Social Networks by Daron Acemoglu – Project Syndicate

September 9, 2022
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Social media platforms are not only creating echo chambers, propagating falsehoods, and facilitating the circulation of extremist ideas. Previous media innovations, dating back at least to the printing press, did that, too, but none of them shook the very foundations of human communication and social interaction.
CAMBRIDGE – Not only are billions of people around the world glued to their mobile phones, but the information they consume has changed dramatically – and not for the better. On dominant social-media platforms like Facebook, researchers have documented that falsehoods spread faster and more widely than similar content that includes accurate information. Though users are not demanding misinformation, the algorithms that determine what people see tend to favor sensational, inaccurate, and misleading content, because that is what generates “engagement” and thus advertising revenue.
As the internet activist Eli Pariser noted in 2011, Facebook also creates filter bubbles, whereby individuals are more likely to be presented with content that reinforces their own ideological leanings and confirms their own biases. And more recent research has demonstrated that this process has a major influence on the type of information users see.
Even leaving aside Facebook’s algorithmic choices, the broader social-media ecosystem allows people to find subcommunities that align with their interests. This is not necessarily a bad thing. If you are the only person in your community with an interest in ornithology, you no longer have to be alone, because you can now connect with ornithology enthusiasts from around the world. But, of course, the same applies to the lone extremist who can now use the same platforms to access or propagate hate speech and conspiracy theories.
No one disputes that social-media platforms have been a major conduit for hate speech, disinformation, and propaganda. Reddit and YouTube are breeding grounds for right-wing extremism. The Oath Keepers used Facebook, especially, to organize their role in the January 6, 2021, attack on the United States Capitol. Former US President Donald Trump’s anti-Muslim tweets were found to have fueled violence against minorities in the US.
True, some find such observations alarmist, noting that large players like Facebook and YouTube (which is owned by Google/Alphabet) do much more to police hate speech and misinformation than their smaller rivals do, especially now that better moderation practices have been developed. Moreover, other researchers have challenged the finding that falsehoods spread faster on Facebook and Twitter, at least when compared to other media.
Still others argue that even if the current social-media environment is treacherous, the problem is transitory. After all, novel communication tools have always been misused. Martin Luther used the printing press to promote not just Protestantism but also virulent anti-Semitism. Radio proved to be a powerful tool in the hands of demagogues like Father Charles Coughlin in the US and the Nazis in Germany. Both print and broadcast outlets remain full of misinformation to this day, but society has adjusted to these media and managed to contain their negative effects.
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This argument implies that a combination of stronger regulation and other new technologies can overcome the challenges posed by social media. For example, platforms could provide better information about the provenance of articles; or the same platforms could be discouraged from algorithmically boosting items that might be incendiary or contain misinformation.
But such measures fail to address the depth of the problem. Social media is not only creating echo chambers, propagating falsehoods, and facilitating the circulation of extremist ideas. It also may be shaking the very foundations of human communication and social cohesion, by substituting artificial social networks for real ones.
We are distinguished from other animals mostly by our advanced ability to learn from our community, and to accumulate expertise by observing others. Our most profound ideas and cherished notions come not in isolation or from reading books, but by being embedded in a social milieu and interacting through argumentation, education, performance, and so forth. Trusted sources play an indispensable role in this process, which is why leaders and those with bully pulpits can have such outsize effects. Earlier media innovations capitalized on this, yet none of them modified the very nature of human networks the way that social media have.
What happens when platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, or Reddit start manipulating what we perceive as our social network? The worrying truth is that nobody knows. And though we could eventually adapt to this change and find ways to neutralize its most pernicious effects, that isn’t an outcome that we should count on, given the direction the industry has been heading.
Social media’s most corrosive effects are starting to look exactly like what the cultural critic Neil Postman anticipated almost four decades ago in his landmark book Amusing Ourselves to Death. “Americans no longer talk to each other, they entertain each other,” he observed. “They do not exchange ideas, they exchange images. They do not argue with propositions; they argue with good looks, celebrities, and commercials.”
Comparing George Orwell’s 1984 to Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, Postman then added that, “What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one. Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism. Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared that the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance.” 
Whereas Postman was worried more about a Huxleyan future than an Orwellian one, social media have been ushering in both at the same time. While governments acquire the means both to manipulate our perceptions of reality and to reduce us to passivity and egoism, our virtual “friends” are increasingly policing our thoughts. One now must continuously signal one’s virtue and call out people who deviate from prevailing orthodoxy. But “virtue” is whatever one’s artificial online social circle says it is; and in many cases, it is based entirely on lies.
Hannah Arendt, another prescient twentieth-century thinker, warned about where this can lead. “If everybody always lies to you, the consequence is not that you believe the lies, but rather that nobody believes anything any longer.” At that point, social and political life become impossible.
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53 Commentaries


Daron Acemoglu, Professor of Economics at MIT, is co-author (with James A. Robinson) of Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity and Poverty (Profile, 2019) and The Narrow Corridor: States, Societies, and the Fate of Liberty (Penguin, 2020).
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Dear Professor Acemoglu, great article on the perils of social media. As you suggest it is the user and his or her intention that is exploited by bubbles for attracting advertisement revenue. Nevertheless, I believe that free speech does mean that people that are mostly young people to indulge in meaning less conversations so that in few years they learn to get the context of mature knowledge-based dialogue on internet, at social media platforms and in live conversation with others. I think where the risks of negative propaganda become excessive to any benefits now or in the future is when social media cause violent crimes or lead to extremist propaganda in case of Islamic extremism or Hindutva Nazism against Muslim minorities. Hate speech should not be allowed on any public forums including social media and there should not be different interpretations to it. Just to give you an example, I use twitter from Pakistan, and I commonly view that a hast tag is created to call upon Qadiani sect as infidels by religious interlocuters and their followers. And it seems the hate speech goes unhindered even when some extremist Hindutva followers call for violence against Indian Muslims through political hash tags. And there is no respite to the hate speech and the ones who participate in it feel encouraged by it as if they are powerful enough and significant enough and relevant enough for social media platforms to carry on with their hate speech. The worse part when in comparison to other broadcasting platforms like digital media and print media is that for social media the participants towards a hate speech are mostly hiding behind aliases and avatars exploiting the vulnerabilities in the society. It is like survival of the fittest. Either the user is consumed by the hate that is hurled in social media platforms or would come out as most considerate individual with perspective of minute cultural, ethnic and religious intricacies and thereby would reject conformism of any kind but adhere to simple notions of liberty that are based on human rights and freedom of expression. Unfortunately, the no hold bar propaganda or hate speech would complement already difficult lives of individuals in developing countries where a blame game for economic and social hardships are iterated on all mediums creating common enemies. Thus the probability to survive social media idiosyncrasies of serious nature and that is hate speech is not very high for the young minds unless they are rich enough to buy environments around themselves that can detoxicate them from social media doses of hate speech.

On the other hand if social media is used with the right context in mind, it is a revolution. For example it was never heard of to get minute by minute details about the activities of global leaders and especially about the President of United States. Even before the mainstream media, the follower of the twitter account of the President of US would get immediate updates about the routine and working style of the bearer of highest office in US that also happens to be the most powerful office in the world. For young followers, by following twitter accounts of global leaders, one can learn the art of leadership and every leader who is present on social media would be as if present in the living room of the home of their followers. Then every organization of consequence has social media presence with live updates on important activities that sometimes caters to the interests of children and youth from across the world. A social media platform, it is free to follow every organization and every newspaper to eventually figure out what is the real story and what is the propaganda.

In the process to buy Twitter Elon Musk had a great suggestion for Twitter and that is to verify all twitter accounts and now when things are not going smoothly between Elon and twitter, it is being told that more than half of twitter accounts represent bots and fake accounts that also represent the source of most of the hate speech hurled on the social media platform.

Thus I think that there needs to be classes in schools and colleges to train young minds on how to get best out of twitter and similarly avoid any attempt made of social media that promotes hate towards others in a similar fashion young students are trained to avoid situations of harassment. Social Media and its use can be a separate subject in high school and colleges where students can learn the multi-cultural, multiethnic and across nations sources of information and to built a local context from that information and social media interaction through assignments and exams.
It occurs to me that when people from different professions, industries, religions, etc. begin to comment on the same subject matter that their attitudes and biases which are naturally different because of the social groups to which they belong are revealed. When they intercommunicate their contrary attitudes regarding the same subject matter the confrontations become verbal fistfights quite naturally.

One observation about these new revelations of bitter disputes between disparate groups on social media is that the opponents never were actually 'tolerant' of other groups — they just had never confronted them because their groups were 'compartmentalized' i.e. socially segregated/isolated and therefore never directly intercommunicated the way they do today on mass social media.

The compartmentalization of society has been discussed by philosophers for centuries. Max Weber, believed by some to be the father of sociology, believed bureaucracies were essential for this very reason — they reinforce the isolation of productive groups to perform their own tasks in noncontentious environments. Religious groups stuck with their own members and communicated little outside of their own groups, leading to internal harmony.

In summary, it is the 'decompartmentalization' of society caused by conflicts between attitudinal groups that has revealed they are not and likely never were tolerant of one another. They just never met before on the common battlefield of today's mass social media.
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