The Lies of Social Media

It should be increasingly clear that the authoritarian presidency of Donald Trump—our so-called tweeter-in chief—is a symptom and death knell of the dumbing down of our culture by information sources that have culminated in the social media now destroying liberal democracy throughout the world.

Let’s be clear: The obscenely rich “inventors” of “bringing the world closer together,” such as Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, take no responsibility for basic truthfulness on their platforms. They brazenly lie—as Zuckerberg did recently before Congress—when they sanctimoniously argue they’re creating engaged communities and human connection and a sense of new harmony on the planet. In fact, they are also and more importantly supporting Internet platforms disseminating lies and sowing discord throughout the world leading to disaster in country after country.

The mayhem created by Facebook in Sri Lanka is just one recent example. The New York Times reports that false rumors posted on the platform has led to violence and death in that country. According to the article:

A reconstruction of Sri Lanka’s descent into violence, based on interviews with officials, victims and ordinary users caught up in online anger, found that Facebook’s newsfeed played a central role in nearly every step from rumor to killing. Facebook officials, they say, ignored repeated warnings of the potential for violence, resisting pressure to hire moderators or establish emergency points of contact.

Sri Lanka is just one glaring example of how social media pushes us to inanity, which can even lead to mass violence and death. Each day, for example, the president of the United States is allowed to outright lie and mislead the entire world on Twitter. Any culture that consistently constructs its existential existence in 280 characters or through often misleading and reductionist memes interspersed between crass advertisements is, frankly, a sick, dying culture, one that needs to be healed if at all possible. There’s no way to downplay it. It’s tragic and grim. That funny cat video on Facebook is innocuous, for sure, but people are dying because of the lies on social media and the liar Trump is president because of social media.

I will be accused of hyperbole, but Facebook and Twitter, in particular, ultimately leads to extinction. The fact Trump and people like InfoWars Alex Jones, a lying right-wing conspiracy theorist, can deploy Twitter to spew hatred day after day proves the point. The inane and the sensational diatribes, The Lie, no matter what evil results from it, stand out as people posting truthful, rational commentary get ignored and dismissed by the algorithms on Facebook and Twitter. The truth is too boring in the growing sea of rage accelerated by social media.

Facebook’s Zuckerberg and Twitter co-founder and CEO Jack Dorsey have put the knife in liberal democracies by not policing truth. Screen culture, especially television, started the inanity and still contributes to the sick morass of lies using the contrarian model of breathless news coverage on cable shows, but social media represents the final collapse of intellectualism. Trump, the epitome of anti-intellectualism and crass hucksterism, is president because people who work at Facebook and Twitter apparently don’t care about the truth.

In full disclosure, I was an early adopter of social media and various technological platforms and pushed it to my students as a college professor. I bought into the idea that blogging and social media gave marginalized voices a space to be heard, and, to some extent, I still believe in that possibility, but bad actors with nefarious intents have now rendered that notion naive. Simply put, the bad outweighs the good on social media, and Facebook and Twitter are not doing much to stop the downward spiral of our culture. It’s time for academics to step up, state this clearly and educate people about the danger of rhetorical reductionism.

But the only real solution to the existential dilemma threatening us all whether we use social media or not is for governments to require media platforms, and that includes search engines like Google, to be legally responsible for the veracity and intention of the information they publish just like newspapers. The 2018 election looms yet here we are still drowning in a sea of lies on social media while Zuckerberg has been given yet another pass by lawmakers who could regulate his company.

Does the right of freedom of speech mean that people can outright lie and misinform in order to incite violence or harm people whether directly, as is the case with Facebook in Sri Lanka, or indirectly, as is the case with Trump on his Twitter feed? If so, then let us just declare and accept that truth and intellectualism are forever dead.

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