Without denying the social media site Facebook has some value, Siva Vaidhyanathan makes a strong case for Facebook’s overall destructive nature in his latest book, Antisocial Media How Facebook Disconnects Us and Undermines Democracy. (Oxford University Press, 2018.) Influenced by Neil Postman, the educator and critic whose best known book, Amusing Ourselves to Death (1985), made a similar case against television, Vaidhyanathan’s book describes and decries the addictive quality of Facebook as well as its shallowness.
In his foreward to Amusing Ourselves to Death, Neil Postman argued that America was not headed toward a 1984 Orwellian future but a future like that in Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. Said, Postman, “Orwell feared we would become a captive culture. Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture, preoccupied with some equivalent of the feelies, the orgy porgy, and the centrifugal bumblepuppy. As Huxley remarked in Brave New World Revisited, the civil libertarians and rationalists who are ever on the alert to oppose tyranny “failed to take into account man’s almost infinite appetite for distractions.”
Using his own Facebook newsfeed as evidence, Vaidhyanathan concludes “Nothing prompted me to think deeply. Everything made me feel something.” He also concludes that Facebook is a “useless tool for deliberation. Citing the Arab Spring uprising, Vaidhyanathan says Facebook gave protesters “a sense that their movement had hit critical mass.” But Facebook’s inability to “take the place or even bolster the hard work of deep political deliberation and organization” meant this was only a chimera. In the end, the authoritarian Muslim Brotherhood took control of the government because they had decades of experience in organization.
Authoritarian movements and governments, already highly organized, have used Facebook to their advantage in ways protest movements have failed to. Cambridge Analytica’s involvement in political campaigns is not the real story, according to Vaidhyanathan. The real story is Facebook’s own involvement. “Facebook is working directly with campaigns, many of which support authoritarian and national candidates. You don’t need Cambridge Analytica if you have Facebook. The impact of Facebook on democracy is corrosive.”
According to Vaidhyanathan, Facebook is also undermining those media (particularly the print media) that do promote a more deliberative approach to politics by siphoning off most of their ad revenue. Facebook is set up so that people often interact with a newspaper article on a Facebook link rather than on the newspaper’s own site. This strengthens Facebook’s already phenomenal power to attract advertisers to place ads on Facebook rather than in the very newspaper which made the necessary investment to research and write the story in the first place.
No medium has been as successful as Facebook in targeting consumers. Facebook encourages people to write about themselves, to list their favorite books, movies and music groups. It asks for and uses a person’s political affiliation, marital status, age and other personal information to targets ads for an individual’s newsfeed. It collects data from the posts individuals “like,” the photos they share and the posts they comment on. And it delivers this information to anyone willing to pay for it.
Although Vaidhyanathan successfully makes a strong case against Facebook, the book does have some weaknesses. The first is that Vaidhyanathan treats people as if they are programmed machines, unable to resist Facebook. He says little, if nothing, of individuals’ abilty to discipline themselves, to remove Facebook from their phones, to limit themselves to x number of minutes per day or to choose to live without it altogether.
Neither does Vaidhyanathan provide any evidence as to how effective Facebook ads are. That Facebook has drawn off a lot of advertising revenues from other media does not by itself mean that advertising on Facebook is successful. It might be, but Vaidhyanathan doesn’t prove it.
Having spent money on Facebook for my book business, I couldn’t help but notice the wide chasm between the number of people Facebook claimed my ads reached and the few people who responded to them, primarily by liking my page. The number of new customers I gained due to advertising on Facebook was negligible.
So when Vaidhyanathan claims that Russian ads during the 2016 presidential campaign reached 146 million Americans, that tells us nothing. It doesn’t tell us how many people paused their newsfeed long enough to read them, how many people responded to an ad by clicking like, attended an event or signed up for email notifications because of the ads. Most importantly, it doesn’t tell us if the ads were effective in delivering any more votes for a particular candidate.
Finally, Vaidhyanathan’s book is biased. It sees Facebook as enhancing the power of authoritarian governments and movements which he sees as conservative, rightwing and nationalist. It says nothing about how Facebook enhances the power of left leaning authoritarian movements and goverments whether they are anarchist, Marxist or progressive to grow and consolidate power. This is unfortunate because Vaidhyanathan comes to the conclusion, to which I agree, that the government needs to reign in Facebook through anti-trust legislation. In order to force the government to act against Facebook, a coalition of politicians across party lines will need to be formed. Vaidhyanathan’s attitude undermines any bi-partisan attempt to defend democracy against Facebook.
Still Vaidhyanathan’s critique is valuable, worth reading and keeping on the shelf next to Amusing Ourselves to Death for future reference. And to his credit, Vaidhyanathan says in his concluding chapter, “I’m confident that soon more powerful books than this one will appear.”