Social Warming by Charles Arthur review – a cold look at social media | Science and nature books

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IIt’s good to remember that whenever Mark Zuckerberg claims to have founded Facebook in order to connect people or build communities, he somehow forgets that he created the site first in order to allow him- even and his fellow dormitories to assess the young Harvard women on their looks. But then, Zuckerberg was never the sharpest tool in the box. He once said that Facebook would not interfere with Holocaust denial on his service, as it was difficult to challenge people’s motivations for denying the Holocaust, before announcing a few years later that his “reflection On the issue had “evolved” and Holocaust denial was now frowned upon. Well, evolution works slowly.

But as Charles Arthur’s book on lawsuits coldly shows, social media algorithms don’t just allow people with bad interests to come together: they act as active matchmakers. “Facebook was harboring extremism by putting extremists in contact with each other,” Facebook’s own internal investigations concluded in 2016. Not only that, Facebook “automatically generates terrorist content”: its “machine learning systems” Have created a “Local Business” page for “al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula”.

Electronic social networks began with the telephone bulletin boards of the 1980s, when hipster clubs such as WELL (“Whole Earth ‘Lectronic Link”) became model communities of the utopian future in books with the word “Cyberspace”. in their titles. “There are things about the WELL chat system that would become obvious to almost all future systems,” Arthur points out. One of them was the fact that assignments do not expire naturally. This architectural choice has led directly to the modern phenomenon of ‘criminal archaeologists’ scouring people’s stories on Twitter in order to publicly humiliate them for sins committed in the distant past, as recently happened to cricketer Ollie Robinson.

The modern conception of social media also psychologically encourages bad behavior, including mass aggression. Chris Wetherell, the man who created the retweet feature, now regrets doing it. And to “quote tweets”, or retweet someone’s post with a comment (usually whistleblower), Arthur writes in a funny way: that idiot just said on the phone! Let me read it to you! ‘ “

Facebook, meanwhile, is establishing itself in developing countries and making deals with mobile operators to make its platform (but not the Internet at large) free on phones. The result is that inexperienced digital users assume that Facebook itself is the Internet, and everything in it must be true – a confusion that Facebook actively encourages by calling its drop-down list of posts a “news feed.” . The results can be alarming, as Arthur shows in a chapter on Myanmar, where a UN fact-finding mission in 2018 found that Facebook had “contributed substantially to the level of acrimony, dissent and conflict. … Within the public ”.

The deepest structural problem is that Facebook, Twitter, and Google can hardly take consistent action against “misleading or unreliable” communications as long as they depend for their profits on advertising, which is so useful. deceptive as possible within the limits of the law. Until Facebook is ready to verify the facts of the ads (and, as anyone who uses it knows, it’s plagued with cynical surges for quack cures for cancer and other hazardous waste), we don’t can’t expect him to check political campaigns. . Satirical researchers have found that as an advertiser, it is possible to pay Facebook to target particular potential customers who have expressed an interest in “pseudoscience” or “vaccine controversies.”

And yet, as Arthur shows, the social media giants could do more if they wanted to, as evidenced by their interventions in public posts about the harms and risks of Covid-19. (Writer Naomi Wolf was recently suspended from Twitter, helping to spread pivotal-eyed nonsense about how standing near vaccinated people can make you sick.) Examining ideas for tighter regulatory control in her In conclusion, Arthur also recommends that we “make content sharing a little less easy”, and maybe even break the giants, just like the Standard Oil Company was disbanded in 1911.

I was unsure of the main phrase to describe the havoc social media is taking on our lives. Warmth, after all, has long been a social metaphor for something desirable: like when people talk warmly or appreciate a warm friendship. (Indeed, according to some psychological research, loneliness makes you cold and being cold makes you more lonely.) Perhaps, just as some now prefer to use “global warming” or “climate crisis” in the atmospheric context, should we be thinking social overheating or social boiling. In the meantime, feel free to share this article on Twitter.

Social Warming: The Dangerous and Polarizing Effects of Social Media is published by Oneworld (£ 16.99). To support the Guardian and the Observer, purchase a copy at guardbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.
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