In 2016, Mark Zuckerberg told an interviewer that “if people focused on safety first, no one would ever have built an airplane.”
The comment was spurious: A lot of work was done to make planes safer before they started carrying billions of people, and the airline industry worked together to improve safety for all in a way that the computer industry can only watch.
Charles Arthur quotes Zuckerberg’s commentary in his new book, Social warming: the dangerous and polarizing effects of social media, as an example of the attitudes that led to the development of social media today. “No one intended for this to happen,” he writes, but here we are: Social media has become a real-life disrupting force in seemingly stable societies.
Just as no one who flew to Australia for a vacation wanted to help start wildfires in Greece and California, no one designed social media to destabilize democracies or provide a home. to Russian bots. They just chose not to prevent them.
“Social warming,” like its climate counterpart, happened slowly and then suddenly. Anyone who has been online for awhile notices the hair trigger that “flame wars” can erupt with. Today’s moral tribes, however, can “break the glass of outrage” for the smallest things.
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Arthur begins by stating these problems, then reminds us that, about 2010, cyberutopians believed that social media could tip the world towards democracy. He then looks at how algorithms work and how quickly disseminated social media interactions arouse outrage, giving examples of how this polarization has worked in practice in Myanmar, Britain and elsewhere. . Finally, he mentions the rise of disinformation about elections and democracy, and the coronavirus pandemic.
Arthur (mandatory disclosure: he was my editor on three different publications) writes as a UK author with broad international interest. Most of the big tech companies he writes about are American (the rest are Chinese), but the problems they create are global. The reality of business means that the attention attracted by outspokenness pays off far more than nuanced discussion, and if the result is violence or destabilized governments, the costs do not fall on social media companies.
After carefully examining the issues and explaining how the social media discourse contributes to them, Arthur asks the most important question: what do we do now? Does social warming look like the multi-faceted climate crisis, or more like the smaller, more repairable hole in the ozone layer?
Arthur quickly rejects the obvious “easy” solutions – repealing Section 230 liability protection or allowing the industry to continue to self-regulate. Instead, he suggests limiting the size of social networks: a few tens of thousands of moderators clearly cannot handle a network with billions of users.
Arthur also suggests tweaking Article 230 to force social media to limit algorithmic amplification. We can change these tools to derive the benefits we seek and limit their harm, he concludes. We just need the will to do it.
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