The other day I made a Facebook post that referred to the arbitrary and, yet, purposefully designed algorithms of social media and how they are effectively silencing and censoring people, especially those on the left. I have noticed it myself. I get far less traffic to my page than in prior years. This makes the social media “experience” less desirable (I will go into the reason why a bit later), and so I said I would likely be spending less time here as a result.
Unfortunately, my post was mostly misunderstood. I got a flood of well-meaning comments asking me how I was doing and urging me to remember my value and worth. Now, it was reassuring to see such kindness. But the nuances of my commentary were eclipsed by concern for my mental health. To be sure, this misunderstanding had mostly to do with my poor wording. But it also has to do with how we communicate in our age. Sadly, it took away from my point, so I deleted it.
Today, social media has become our commons. The place where people gather. But this isn’t the commons of old. The digital commons come in an era of late capitalism. And we, the participants, have little to no say in how it is governed, even as it uses our personal information as capital to amass even more profit.
But this “experience” with social media has an affect on how we interact with it and what we get out of it. It depends on the “dopamine/serotonin effect” which has a lot to do with how we experience joy, satisfaction and contentment, but also, unfortunately, has a lot to do with how addiction works. Because I get less traffic to my page these days, I have less interest in it. Those “reward centers” are not being toyed with as much. And this is not a bad thing. Not in the least. The experience enabled me to detach from Facebook with greater ease than before, as I was not obsessing over the next red “bell” on the upper left hand corner of my Facebook screen as much as I was before.
Now, none of this is to say that social media offers nothing to the world. It does offer a great deal when it comes to raising awareness about injustices. Such was the case in the recent carnage Israel unleashed on the captive population of Gaza. Or Saudi Arabia’s merciless war against the people of Yemen. Or about environmental destruction by corporations, past and present. Or racist police state violence. Or the fundamental brutality and unfairness of capitalism.
It also offers people a chance to connect with others of like mind. To reach out across borders in solidarity and form mass movements that upend the fundamental structures of power in our world. And on a personal level, it helps us to connect with people who may live far away. Some of whom we knew years ago. I am grateful for the friendships and connections I have made here. But we need to remember that these are billion-dollar corporations that holds billions of people in its hands, so to speak.
On an individual level, cultivating the kind of social media environment we find fulfilling is necessary in order to enjoy that experience. Sometimes that means censoring people who bring to us a certain level of discord or who cannot seem to respect our values when it comes to our personal page. But when a behemoth corporation does this we can only see it as authoritarian and dangerous. Was former US president Trump a menace to the public good? Was he a peddler of false, reckless and even deadly information? Yes, he was. But when people celebrate a corporate power’s use of censorship, when it has broad control over societal and civil discourse with little to no accountability, we must wonder if they understand the real danger at play.
Many in the west like to point to China’s authoritarian system of “social credit” which is designed to enforce “good behavior” by its citizens. This system translates into real life transactions. Want to buy a plane ticket? Purchase a house? You better make sure you have not had too many infractions on your record.
But few see the social credit system arranged and implemented by social media in the West. How many people know that these companies have developed algorithms which allow for discriminatory practices based on racial or economic status? How many oppose such authoritarian overreach in our society? Recently, research by Black scholars Joy Buolamwini, Deb Raji and Timnit Gebru, revealed racist algorithms in facial recognition software developed by Microsoft, Amazon and IBM. Software that was routinely sold to police departments and government agencies who then used it to target Black and Indigenous activists. There is an insidious “social credit system” that is ubiquitous in the West and is most often overlooked in our day to day interactions.
The current rulers of the digital commons allow us time in the play pen or even give us a “platform” as long as we do not rock the boat too much. We can have “lively debate,” as Noam Chomsky once averred, but only within the boundaries they have set up. They determine which ones of our “thoughts or feelings” (what is “on our mind?”) merit “boosting” and which merit disappearing. When we feel “disappeared” we can react in a myriad of ways. We can completely disengage, which works for a few, but not most. We can “cry out” for more attention. Or we can understand how our minds have been molded by a complex set of algorithms and begin reshaping it to respond to our own agency.
We are at the nexus of enormous technological advancement, rapid environmental destruction, unending imperialistic militarism, and the alarming erosion of civil liberties and democracy under late capitalism. The digital commons provide us a needed link to one another and to the broader, global community. But as long as it remains under the aegis of wealthy corporate entities, our voices will continue to be marginalized and silenced. To push back against this, we must learn how to navigate the digital commons intelligently and on our own terms. And that begins with understanding how it is designed to shape our responses, our thoughts, our perceptions, indeed, our very minds.
Kenn Orphan June 2021
*Image is Global Circuit via Shutterstock.
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