Chamath Palihapitiya of speaks onstage at the TechCrunch Disrupt NY 2013 in New York City. “The short-term, dopamine-driven feedback loops that we have created are destroying how society works,” he said about Facebook in a recent interview with The Guardian. Photo courtesy of TechCrunch (CC BY 2.0)

Peter Stockland: Don't blame social media for human bad behaviour

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  • December 14, 2017

There is something seriously laughable, but also laughably serious, about former Facebook bosses bemoaning the global damage caused by social media giants.

In recent weeks, the founding president of Facebook and its erstwhile vice-president of user growth have issued mea culpas for their roles in addicting the world to the “dopamine hits” of user “likes” and for manipulating human psychology.

Chamath Palihapitiya, who left his vice-president’s job in 2011 when the site was experiencing stratospheric growth, reportedly told a techie crowd at Stanford Business School about his feelings of “personal guilt” at helping foist Facebook on two billion unsuspecting users.

“The short-term, dopamine-driven feedback loops that we have created are destroying how society works,” Palihapitiya is quoted by the Guardian newspaper.

“No civil discourse, no co-operation, misinformation, mistruth. It is eroding the core foundations of how people behave by and between each other.”

Palihapitiya’s remarks came a day after Sean Parker, Facebook’s founding president, spoke out against the company’s exploitation of “a vulnerability in human psychology” through “social validation feedback loops” — otherwise known as liking to be liked by others.

Having made at least a billion dollars by helping to found Facebook, Parker now admits the social media giant was deliberately created to consume as much user time as possible. He has joined a choir of obscenely rich and relatively young programmer nerds waving their arms and crying about the harms they’ve unleashed.

He, and other latter-day Silicon Valley would-be saints, might do themselves some good by actually reading a bit of history. Before doing even that, they might google the word "hubris". Best of all, they might download the Book of Genesis to get at least an inkling of exactly what they’re dealing with.

The very idea that Facebook is some unimagined dark force shredding social harmony in a pristine and peaceful Happy Clappy Global Valley is itself derivative of delusions that denied the fallen nature of human beings. Are “social validation feedback loops” truly more threatening to the “vulnerability of human psychology” than, oh, National Socialist ideology? Than pogroms and exterminations and hatreds that have seethed in, and spilled out of, the human heart since Cain and Abel quarrelled over the first generation play station? It is to laugh.

None of which is to say that Facebook and its social media simulacra aren’t cause for serious concern. Of course they are. Any means of human communication that lets people behave as boorishly as a mob of drunks outside a bar at 3 a.m., and guarantees them almost perfect anonymity to do so, is unlikely to lead to a world-wide surplus of thoughtful and considerate behaviour. But while social media may be the mess, it is ultimately only a message about the human heart.

We behave badly on social media… because we behave badly as human beings. We are vulnerable to social media manipulation because we are vulnerable as human beings to envy, greed, malice, covetousness and sloth. We accept and traffic in false news on social media because we are drawn to being deceivers and liars ourselves (See Genesis, Adam, Eve, Serpent et al). We indulge all the flaws of Facebook because we are, oh, what’s that little oft-forgotten word, right, sinners, that’s it.

Social media certainly affirms the weaknesses of human psychology. Yet it can hardly have created those faults because they have existed since the first human wilfully turned away from God. Claiming otherwise shows abysmal ignorance of human history and human hearts. It does something even worse. It suggests that overcoming the eternal effects of the Fall is about turning away from a one decade-old system of interlinked data exchange, and “doing good” in some generic fashion.

No. The means of information generation is not really even the question, much less the answer. The genesis of renewing ourselves is the Word. It is turning our faces to Christ. It is the seriously joyful laughter of salvation.

(Stockland is publisher of Convivium.ca and a senior fellow with Cardus.)

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