Scott Hardie | November 24, 2019
It has been clear to me for some time that social media is toxic and dangerous to humanity. I've seen it ruin more friendships than it has fostered. I've seen it turn people bitter and discompassionate. It pumps so many lies and so much garbage out into the world. I have tried to talk friends and loved ones out of using it, but they won't listen. Me, I've stopped consuming it, but what good is one person dropping out if billions still consume it daily?

Last week, Sasha Baron Cohen gave a blistering speech in which he articulated the dangers of the big five Internet companies. I think he's absolutely right. His entire speech is worth reading.

Facebook, YouTube and Google, Twitter and others—they reach billions of people. The algorithms these platforms depend on deliberately amplify the type of content that keeps users engaged—stories that appeal to our baser instincts and that trigger outrage and fear. It's why YouTube recommended videos by the conspiracist Alex Jones billions of times. It's why fake news outperforms real news, because studies show that lies spread faster than truth. And it's no surprise that the greatest propaganda machine in history has spread the oldest conspiracy theory in history—the lie that Jews are somehow dangerous. As one headline put it, "Just Think What Goebbels Could Have Done with Facebook."

On the internet, everything can appear equally legitimate. Breitbart resembles the BBC. The fictitious Protocols of the Elders of Zion look as valid as an ADL report. And the rantings of a lunatic seem as credible as the findings of a Nobel prize winner. We have lost, it seems, a shared sense of the basic facts upon which democracy depends.
Have you considered giving up social media?

Samir Mehta | November 26, 2019
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Steve West | November 26, 2019
Al Pacino as Michael Corleone said, "Keep your friends close but keep your enemies closer". A fictional character, of course, but many authors espouse great truths through their protagonists. I read Facebook posts and Google news feeds to stay informed. And I rely on Snopes to debunk a lot of stuff. I expect I'll continue to do so.

Samir Mehta | November 27, 2019
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Erik Bates | November 27, 2019
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Samir Mehta | November 27, 2019
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Scott Hardie | November 29, 2019
Of course we are the problem. Some people are just terrible and always will be. They gleefully consume, create, and promote awful lies and propagandist filth. And other people are just well-intentioned idiots who share falsehoods without realizing it. We think that as reasonable people, we're immune to their influence because we recognize the lies and propaganda and we ignore it. But I don't think we are immune. I've seen a surprising number of smart, skeptical people share misinformation online that they thought was real. I've done it myself. I've believed things that I saw on social media, only to learn weeks or months later that they were false. I've found myself feeling anxious, depressed, and angry without understanding why, until I searched my feelings and realized it was something I saw online earlier. Hurricane Irma a couple of years ago was a clear example: Kelly and I were worked into such a nervous frenzy by friends posting hyperbolic warnings and bad advice about the storm that we overreacted and damaged our home, furniture, and vehicle by panicking and taking dumb precautions; we would have been much better off without Facebook.

If we're not going to step away from these platforms, then the next best thing would be much better regulation of the content on them, either voluntarily by the companies (good luck with that happening) or by law. I look at it like gun control. Some people are responsible gun owners who keep weapons for self defense; some people are potential mass murders who want to open fire into crowds. We shouldn't allow the sale of weapons that can kill tens of people per minute to the general public. We can't stop the murderers from wanting to kill, but we can and should take the tool of mass murder out of their hands.

Other media are restricted. Even as a private citizen with constitutional free-speech rights, you can't hold a Klan rally on public access TV, or spew racist lies and white-nationalist propaganda on public access radio. Yet you can freely upload all kinds of damaging garbage to YouTube, Facebook, Instagram, you name it. I would say that these platforms have significantly more of a responsibility to mind their content than public-access media, since their reach is global, not local. White nationalists publish all kinds of racist, anti-Semitic pamphlets, but distribution is limited to their own community because no bookseller will stock that garbage on shelves, but social media is like a giant global bookstore that will. And worse, the more effective propagandists know how to water down the content so that the message gets out to the right people without seeming evil on its face, but the overall pattern is clear.

Everywhere I look on social media, I see content that divides us. "OK Boomer" and "welfare cheats" and culture-war clickbait nonsense about Colin Kaepernick kneeling and Martin Scorsese hating on Marvel and whether Elsa should be gay, all designed to anger us and separate us. I'm sick of it. I'm sick of watching everyone around me wanting to fight all the time with each other. It's not healthy; it's highly toxic and corrosive to our society and our psyches. If you see something online that wants to antagonize people into having young-vs-old or rich-vs-poor or red-vs-blue or similar mindsets, that's a post by someone who has their own interest in seeing us divided, not your interest. If you see something online that makes you mad, which can even include traditional content like the news, that's content designed and curated to push your buttons because it serves the interests of its creators, not your interest. Don't delude yourself into thinking you're smart enough not to be affected on some level; nobody is.

Scott Hardie | December 29, 2019
Ross Douthat wrote an interesting counter-argument, and cites scientific research that undermines part of Sacha Baron Cohen's argument.

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