Something has gone very wrong with social media, and it goes far beyond just Donald Trump. CNS composite photo/images by Dado Ruvic and Jonathan Ernst of Reuters

Sr. Helena Burns: The dilemma that is social media

  • January 20, 2021

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The dilemma that is social media

Sr. Helena Burns, FSP

A much-ballyhooed documentary entitled The Social Dilemma has been making the rounds on Netflix. It’s about some major players in the world of Big Tech, Silicon Valley and social media who have called it quits and are now on what I call “the apology tour.”

I have been quoting some of these geeks and entrepreneurs for a few years now in my Media Literacy workshops, and it was great to see some of them walking and talking “in the virtual flesh,” so to speak. Some are young (Tristan Harris, formerly of Google) and some are not (Jaron Lanier, father of virtual reality), but there’s a consensus among them that something has gone very wrong with social media. Fierce negativity seems to rule the day.

The three “digital popes” (those whose pontificates have coincided with the existence of the Internet) have spoken much about the many advantages and disadvantages of digital communications. The Social Dilemma focuses exclusively on the dangers, two in particular: tech addiction and manipulation of social media users by ideologies and corporate interests.

What is meant by “manipulation”? For starters, Big Tech actually hired neurologists to design hardware, software and content in a way that would orchestrate, direct and perhaps overpower our eye-brain connection in the highly competitive “attention economy.” However, critics of The Social Dilemma hold that advertising, for example, has always used science and research to attempt to influence our free choices as much as possible.

These rebutters see The Social Dilemma as a kind of attack on capitalism and free enterprise. They believe no one is being forced to use social media, and we can use it however we choose because these addictive tools and techniques can be resisted (speaking of adults with developed willpower). A critique also states The Social Dilemma makes us look like puppets (there is quite literally a repeated visualization of this) who are completely controlled and can no longer think or act with liberty.

I agree with many of the arguments on both sides (those made in The Social Dilemma and those made by its naysayers). A bigger question is the fact that social media isn’t just about advertising. It’s about news and information, crucially important to living in a free society, and living in general.

Over the past few years, we have seen an accelerated upswing in propaganda, “fake news” and outright partisanship in what should be impartial, factual news reporting online and elsewhere. This unabashed bias has increased to the point of divisiveness, polarization, extremism and mass confusion on an epic scale.

The fact that we don’t say “Big Media” but rather “Big Tech” with regard to Facebook/Instagram, Amazon, Apple, Netflix, Google/YouTube, Microsoft, Twitter, etc., is because that’s how they’re classified. If they were classified as media companies, they would be regulated and beholden to the FCC (Federal Communications Commission, the counterpart of Canada’s CRTC), but they are not.

The U.S. government has been trying for years to break up their individual and collective stranglehold on healthy competition and their concentration of power via antitrust laws, without much success. And now, after the violent and deadly storming of the Capitol building in Washington, D.C., colossal co-ordinated censorship — by Big Tech — is blocking, silencing and banning all kinds of conservative pundits, discourse and accounts.  Although the “Big Tech” companies I just mentioned are all United States-based, they are utilized by the world, in many different languages. What will happen to free speech in cyberspace? It remains to be seen.

At this point, I’d like to throw a wrench into the whole works and offer one solution from Lanier, author of You Are Not a Gadget. His most recent book says it all: “Ten Arguments For Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now.” He makes some excellent points.

However, the Daughters of St. Paul (#medianuns) choose to stay on social media so we can do our part to preach the Gospel, as well as flip the tone towards positivity, truth, civility, charity and constructive conversation. We recently got millions of hits on a fun TikTok about prayer preferences (TikTok is the preferred social media app of youth right now). May these “wonderful gifts” (Vatican II) of modern media be used well, in order “that the Word of the Lord may speed on and triumph” (1 Thessalonians 3:1).

(Sr. Helena, fsp, is a Daughter of St. Paul. She holds a Masters in Media Literacy Education and studied screenwriting at UCLA.  Twitter: @srhelenaburns)

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