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.


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.”

Society would be best served if many of us deleted our social media accounts, he said.

Kora Fortun, a freshman linguistics and math major at UC Santa Cruz, told Lanier that she agrees with many of his premises but sees a different path forward.

“I see more hope in a new generation of social media users being aware and thus maintaining some control of the platforms we use,” Fortun said.

Lanier responded that he “loved the idea” of a population with the wisdom to avoid being herded by the algorithms, but he doesn’t believe it’s possible. “It’s all this algorithmic adaptive process that keeps trying a million experiments on populations of millions of people until it finds what works,” he said. “Given that that’s the way the system operates in many cases, I respectfully have to inform you that you have no hope of being self-aware about this.”

Lanier fleshed out his thesis in more detail later as he delivered the 2018 Peggy Downes Baskin Ethics Lecture, drawing a narrative of tech companies selling users’ data and attention as their true product to meet an expectation that web services should be free.

“We’ve created a world in which anytime two people connect online it’s financed by a third person who believes they can manipulate the first two,” Lanier said.
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Feeding the cycle is an addictive tendency on behalf of social media users that he compared to gambling or cigarette smoking, Lanier said.

And his proposed solution is designed to account for that addictive tendency: If enough social media users can break away from dependency, Lanier said, they could be an unbiased base of advocates to reform the system, as, in his telling, happened with tobacco legislation.

He invited the audience forego social media for six months to test if the platforms are having a negative impact on their lives and emotions.

“I’m not telling you what’s right for you, but I demand that you discover what’s right for you,” he said. “That, I think, is a fair demand, given the stakes.”

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