Tech Pioneer Jaron Lanier Says Social Media Is Destroying Democracy

By Nicholas Ibarra
Santa Cruz Sentinel

WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) At a recent speaking engagement, tech pioneer Jaron Lanier invited the audience to forego social media for six months to test if the platforms are having a negative impact on their lives and emotions.

SANTA CRUZ, Calif.

Social media is destroying democracy, or so says tech pioneer Jaron Lanier, whose varied career includes coining the term “virtual reality.”

Lanier, a renowned computer scientist and author, has been sounding the alarm about the supposed perils of social media for more than a decade, warning that the ad-revenue-driven, attention-hoarding algorithms of companies such as Facebook and Twitter are inherently structured to trigger a fight-or-flight response, and that claiming the platforms could threaten the stability of modern society itself.

But it’s only recently, as current events provide frequent fodder for Lanier’s case, that an audience beyond the hills of Silicon Valley has listened.

“I’m really concerned Facebook is going to kill all the democratic governments before we have a chance to regulate it,” Lanier said in a talk at the University of California, Santa Cruz.

Lanier’s visit to the campus, institute, could hardly have been timed better.

In the U.S, there has in the past week been partisan and hate-fueled violence with bombs mailed to prominent Democrats, shots fired into a Florida Republican headquarters and 11 people killed in a massacre at a Pittsburgh synagogue.

And Sunday, Brazil elected far-right populist Jair Bolsonaro to the presidency, becoming the latest Democratic nation to lurch toward nationalism in an increasingly vitriolic and polarized political climate.

The growing list of nations grappling such populism is culturally and politically diverse, Lanier said. “But the one thing they all have in common, is this recent, relatively recent, arrival of social media, followed by this wave of nasty, irritable politics coming to the fore all at once.”

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