My friends often ask me why I left Facebook and some say they miss me there. That warms my heart because I miss them too. Truth is I am waiting for social media 2.0 before I wade in that pool again.
Social media has been weaponized by three elements: the nefarious agents who manipulate in the pursuit of information wars, the hapless consumers thinking anything they see there is legit, and the platform providers fumbling with profit motives that seem to favor the manipulators at a steep cost to the consumers. It is this poison-laden combination that shoved me to the exit sign. Until we understand the dynamics and build more trust, social media will remain locked and loaded for me.
Let's start with the manipulators.
I am not taking about businesses showing us ads and influencing our buying habits. I am talking about bots and foreign agents with an objective to sow discord, cause confusion, promote propaganda, and disrupt order. Case in point, the Russians meddling in the 2016 US elections. To understand the egregious reach of these bad actors, consider what is happening with WhatsApp in India. For reasons I don't fully understand, Indians are trigger-happy about forwarding WhatsApp messages. Mass pandemonium created by WhatsApp forwards has led to several incidents of violence and murders. Add to this communal politics and foreign agents and you've got a fertile ground for violent chaos. Recently, five innocent men were beaten to death by a mob convinced that these were the child kidnappers from a viral WhatsApp message which circulated to millions of consumers.
Then come the consumers.
I don't even know where to start with us.
We share too much information thinking that the likes of Facebook are obligated to protect our data. And by posting "I do not give you the right to use my data", we delude ourselves into thinking that the platform will deliver protection. The fact is they can't protect us or our data. The Ponemon Institute's 2017 Cost of Data Breach report shows how startling the breach statistic is. When you get a service for free, the provider makes money through ads, a business model that inherently favors anybody willing to pay for our information - the good guys and the bad guys. The more we share, the more vulnerable we make ourselves.
Finally, we get to the platform providers.
What makes social media challenging for me are questions with no easy answers: Should the platform control content? Who is the arbiter of "good" content? Are the providers even capable of sifting through the intersection of content and consumer to know what is worthy and what is not. Is it even their responsibility to control?
"Worthy" deserves a quick tour of our own biases.
To the ultra right-wingers, Infowars, the den of deranged conspiracy theorists is reliable; to ultra-liberals, anything on Palmer Report is believable. I want to think that the vast majority of us knows the difference. But, do we?
How many of my liberal friends think that Huffington Post falls in the category of "Selective or Incomplete Story; Unfair Persuasion" and how many of my conservative buddies think that The Washington Post and NYT only "Skew Liberal" while Fox News is "Hyper-Partisan Conservative"? I can imagine heated discussions around these labels given our own political leanings. Yet, social media gives us no time to digest the nuances. Instead, platform relevance demands fast and furious sharing and relegates vetting to the dustbin.
How is a platform supposed to navigate such turbulent waters if we can't police ourselves? While the world grapples with the consequences, social media continues it's unrelenting march towards a very dangerous place.
The Silicon Valley upstarts who birthed social media seem entirely incapable of providing leadership now that their platforms have taken on a life of their own. NYT observed that Facebook was "comically tripped" when Mark Zuckerberg blessed holocaust deniers with a home on his platform. Was he endorsing their first amendment right or relinquishing his responsibility to guide the context of what he has created? I am sure it is the latter because the former holds a hallowed place in our psyche.
When I first came to the US, the concept of free speech eluded me. How was the KKK allowed to hold rallies? Worse yet, how could the authorities permit them? It took me years to wrap my head around what the founding fathers intended and to appreciate the value of free speech.
On one hand it would be terrible for social media to regulate free speech, but clearly, something must be done since individual liberties and democracies are under attack. Mr. Zuckerberg and his colleagues are fumbling indeed. They don't seem to have a clue, and so I got off their platform until a way is devised to indicate the "legitimacy" of content.
The Holy Grail
While the providers cannot police content, I believe they have a responsibility to remain ahead of the curve in recognizing, ousting, and banning the bad actors. WhatsApp just instituted a new policy in India where a message can only be forwarded to five recipients in a bid to control unfettered dissemination of illegitimate information. Facebook recently ejected a data firm and Twitter removed millions of followers. These are good steps but why didn't they think of doing this before election meddling and the killing of innocents?
In the coming months and years, I hope the role of the consumer will evolve and our new avatars will be better at making the digital universe more inhabitable.
I am warming up to the idea of a "Fake News" option, in addition to "Like". Maybe even expand it to "Condemn","Conspiracy", "Extreme" and other icons so we can warn each other of the abyss. And like Reddit, I hope to see the platforms offer us the ability to bump up the good stuff and push down the rest. That might force us to think deeper as opposed to digesting content at face value. Plus, we hate scrolling.
Action by keystroke could elevate our collective voice and allow the good people to wrest control from the loudmouths, miscreants, trolls, bots, and foreign agents.
With a "Fake News" option, yours truly might even consider stepping back into social media. Heck, I might even click on an ad or two and be willing to pay for use. If I am back.