In his new book, Anti-Social Media: How Facebook Disconnects Us and Undermines Democracy Siva Vaidhyanathan lays out why Facebook may be good for some people, but not good for democracy as a whole.
The book is divided into sections delineating the ways in which we can look at Facebook: as a pleasure machine, a surveillance machine, an attention machine, a benevolence machine, a protest machine, a politics machine or a disinformation machine.
The structure of the book highlights the different facets of Facebook, beneficial and nefarious, that present themselves and that maintain the network’s centrality in the lives of some 2.2 billion people.
Vaidhyanathan states that Facebook distracts from important issues, energises hatred and erodes social justice. He appreciates that this was never part of Zuckerberg’s plan. Rather, the social media pioneer had wanted to create a network connecting everyone, but in a way that did not have to involve politics.
The book argues that Zuckerberg’s attempt to create an apolitical social network, explicitly pushing away political responsibility, has created a dangerous environment where, due to our culture of instant gratification, extremist content can be valorised and pushed to the front of news feeds.
We are apparently so willing, whether consciously or otherwise, to input our personal information into Facebook, that Vaidhyanathan describes as “the most pervasive surveillance system in the history of the world”.
This book would not be complete without mention of the alleged rigging of the American elections by Russian intelligence and the role of Cambridge Analytica, in both the UK and the US. The author calls Cambridge Analytica a “sleazy British political firm” that hoovered up Facebook data from more than fifty million Americans in preparation for its work to elect a president of the United States.
Vaidhyanathan plays with some interesting concepts. For example, he considers that as part of the “Pleasure Machine”, Facebook is a “forum for tribalism”: ‘‘Even when we post and share demonstrably false stories and claims we do so to declare our affiliation, to assert that our social bonds mean more to us than the question of truth”.
However, these neatly arranged concepts are not mirrored by equally arranged solutions. Vaidhyanathan asks the reader: “What can we do about the outsized influence Facebook has on how we see each other?”, to which he unsatisfyingly answers “Not much, unfortunately”. Perhaps it is part of the impossibility of managing Facebook that has led Vaidhyanathan to this conclusion. Yet, from the reader’s perspective such a tepid answer makes one wonder what one has gained from reading 220 pages of this fairly dense read.
Overall, however, Anti-Social Media offers an interesting and interested view on how Facebook came to be and what it has become. Vaidhyanathan contends that perhaps splitting up conglomerates like Facebook, Instagram and Youtube may help to quell Facebook’s anti-democratic reign, though this would be by no means a final solution. Another idea was to try to influence policy, though even in his concluding remarks Vaidhyanathan approaches this pessimistically. Despite suggesting need for reform of our information ecosystem “to resist the rising illiberal oligopoly”, Vaidhyanathan leaves it far from clear as to how this will be done.
Oscar Davies is a media lawyer who will start pupillage at One Brick Court in October 2019.