Opinion

Opinion | Jaron Lanier

Global addiction to social media is ruining democracy

File - This Jan. 17, 2017, file photo shows a Facebook logo being displayed in a start-up companies gathering at Paris' Station F, in Paris. Facebook is on the offensive to try to contain swirling concerns about how it protects the data of its 2.2 billion members.
Thibault Camus/Associated Press

A roar of voices — from the left and right — bemoans that our society, our democracy, our very nation, is slowly becoming absurd, unbelievable, and bizarre because of deep flaws in our own tech companies.

Conservatives fear that there’s a liberal bias at the heart of the big tech companies like Facebook and Google. These companies have gotten into the middle of absolutely everything about our lives at every level, from the way we look at our own family photos to the way we learn anything about our world.

At the same time, liberals cite strong evidence that these same companies have been manipulated by dark forces — particularly Russian information warfare units — to destabilize the United States by promoting a nutty brand of politics that happened to be aligned at the time with conservatives.

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James Clapper, the former director of national intelligence, recently stated that he believes Russian-backed operations mounted within our own tech platforms “threw” our last presidential election and might make future elections suspect, because we’re doing nothing about it. This only adds to the well-established consensus from intelligence agencies that Russia has been using our own Internet companies against us.

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What if critics from the left and the right are both correct? Maybe there is something unsustainably creepy about having a handful of the world’s largest corporations right in the middle of all communication between everyone, no matter how intimate, especially when the business plan of these companies depends on manipulating human behavior.

It’s important to understand the nature of the problem. The effects of social media manipulation are slight at any given time. But slight changes applied consistently and carefully can have big effects. An initially minute compound interest can turn into a big reward for a patient investor. In the same way, slight but predictable changes to the behavior of a population can be gained through adaptive algorithmic adjustments to social media experiences.

The problem is weirdly devilish. It attacks the very mechanisms that ought to protect us. The damage is reminiscent of the way AIDS undoes the immune systems that would normally battle disease. Once elections are made suspect, for instance, then politicians have little choice but to cling to the results that brought them to office. If a politician says, “I might not have been legitimately elected,” then that politician is undone, and chaos ensues. There is no way out.

Former executives and engineers of conscience — from companies like Google and Facebook — have admitted and apologized for deliberately creating addictive and manipulative designs. Everything is out in the open, and yet the threat has a design that prevents us from responding. We feel helpless and just sit there, watching our world become fake and dark.

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It’s not just politics. The onset of new media use on smartphones coincided with a rise in teen suicide of almost a third. This is a stunning level of carnage. Usually, parents would not take no for an answer when it comes to protecting kids. Think about Mothers Against Drunk Driving. The problem this time is that the parents are also addicted to social media. Most people are. It’s easier to talk about those people over there who are addicted to opioids, alcohol, gambling, or some other seemingly exotic disorder than it is to face one’s own addictions. Once again, the disease attacks the very forces that should defend against it, so that we are all left in an absurd state of disability.

Maybe the moral courage of Silicon Valley engineers will save us. More and more of the most valuable and talented individuals are starting to demand that the big tech companies change their ways. There was recently a wave of resignations in protest of some of Google’s latest work, in this case extending personal surveillance techniques to drones.

Maybe the European Union will save us. The new privacy rules that just came into effect — the General Data Protection Regulation — might turn out to force the companies into better business practices. There were complaints lodged on the first day of the GDPR that Google and Facebook were forcing users to agree to the full barrage of surveillance and manipulation in exchange for using the companies’ services at all. We will see how those legal challenges evolve. But the project of European unity has already been weakened by social media addiction and manipulation. Information warfare waged through American tech platforms targeted the Brexit vote and boosted the rise of populist parties.

If Americans wish to live in a world that doesn’t feel increasingly dark and absurd, like a “Black Mirror” episode, then we must regain the characteristic that has always saved America in the past: individual identity, courage, and self-determination.

We cannot just lament, complain, and whine. We must act, and there are not too many options for action available. Since the platforms run by the very companies at the heart of the problem — like Google, Facebook, Twitter, and others that have proved themselves vulnerable to abuses by entities like Russian psych warfare units — are also the places where people currently lament, complain, and whine, those activities are profoundly useless, more than ever.

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There is one clear, concrete thing you can do to refuse to participate in the destruction of our beloved country. Delete your social media accounts.

Maybe there is something unsustainably creepy about having a handful of the world’s largest corporations right in the middle of all communication between everyone.

It’s hard to break an addiction. You’ll tell yourself stories about why you don’t need to do it, and those stories will be reinforced by other people with similar addictions, including many well-meaning people of influence. They’ll tell you that if you succeed, you’re only being unfair to those who can’t follow you. You’ll be told you’re privileged, or selfish, or silly.

If you find that you can’t quit, that your dependence is winning, whether for emotional, personal, or professional reasons . . . if you find that you are absolutely compelled to agree to accept sneaky and abusive schemes, as described by some of the top people who created them, if that is what it comes to, then you must demand a cessation of these schemes as the top priority for our nation.

If we cannot trust our own elections, enjoy our own family bonds without manipulative intervention, or learn about our world without the fear of psych warfare, then our nation is as good as dead.

All other causes are lost if this cause is lost. This isn’t someone else’s addiction. This is your addiction, right here, right now. Deal with it or forget about the America you love.

Jaron Lanier is a computer scientist, musician, and writer. His latest book is “Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts.”