The Social Media Phenomenon: Is It a Frankenstein?

Apr 14th, 2018 | By | Category: Culture & Wordview, Featured Issues

Two-hundred years ago an anonymous novel was published:  Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus.  The author was Mary Shelley, who clearly posited a premise that is no longer controversial?that humans can create life with the tools provided by science.  Gene-editing and widespread research on artificial intelligence provide evidence that Shelley?s premise is no longer science fiction.  The novel?s protagonist, Victor Frankenstein, created a monster and the novel raises the profound issues of the limits of scientific creativity and responsibility.

Professors Ed Finn and David Guston of Arizona State University argue that ?Victor?s failure to care for his creature, to recognize its agency and his own obligations in bringing it to life, is the central crime of the novel, the sin from which all else springs.  Frankenstein is more about what happened after the moment of creation, as Victor comes to terms with his own responsibility, than about his creative act in the first place.?  The unintended consequences of creativity and innovation are important.  Does the creator of some technological marvel bear responsibility for how his/her creation is used?  What is the level of that responsibility?  Although one can easily apply the lessons raised by Mary Shelley?s Victor Frankenstein to gene-editing and artificial intelligence, can one also ask the same questions when it comes to the Social Media phenomenon?  Have Google, Facebook and Twitter, for example, created a monster they cannot control?  Let?s think about this set of questions in this Perspective.

Columnist Daniel Henninger of the Wall Street Journal appropriately concludes that ?data is the oxygen of the internet.  Any online click for any reason inputs data.  In the beginning this data, organized into things like family Facebook groups or Google Maps or Wikipedia, was seen as good.?  But consider these aspects of the internet and Social Media:

  • Researchers and parents agree that social media is distorting the lives of young people, especially adolescent girls.
  • Web forums fill with millions of young men exchanging sexual and political rants.
  • Terrorists wallow in jihadist videos on You-Tube, brainwashing themselves into acts of mass murder.
  • People write articles saying they have forgotten how to read books.
  • Major advertisers accuse social-media companies of allowing their ads to appear alongside pornography, a bog beyond anyone?s control.
  • The cyberwarfare spies of Russia?s Internet Research Agency ran around the US uncaught for years.
  • Social media?s contribution to the Arab Spring and Ukraine?s Orange Revolution was a positive overall, but today dictators use the same tools as an instrument of surveillance and control.

The internet and social media are thus technologies that can be used for good but also for pernicious, deceptive evil.  In a sense, algorithms rule the world and anyone with an iPhone has a ?gateway into this dystopia.?

The companies of the Social-Media-complex make money in various ways but primarily by putting photos, personal posts, news stories and ads in front of you.  But in doing so, they can measure how you react and therefore what excites you and what depresses you.  They collect mountains of data about you in order to have algorithms to determine what will catch your eye.

Consider these aspects of the social media phenomenon:

  • Facebook now acknowledges that before and after the 2016 US presidential election, between January 2015 and August 2016, 146 million users may have seen Russian misinformation on its platform.  Google?s You-Tube admitted to 1,108 Russian-linked videos and Twitter to 36,746 accounts.  Far from bringing enlightenment, the social media have been spreading poison!  The Economist reports that ?Vladimir Putin?s regime has used social media as part of surreptitious campaigns in its neighbors including Ukraine, in France and Germany, in America and elsewhere.?  The false stories, misinformation and incendiary posts done by Russia ?bounce between social networks, including Facebook, its subsidiary Instagram and Twitter. . . This integrated, purposeful system is a ?firehose of falsehood.??  In the 2016 campaign, Facebook now admits that these Russia sponsored ads and falsehoods reached around 40% of America?s population.
  • Together Facebook and Google account for about 40% of America?s digital content consumption.  Social media are mechanisms therefore for capturing, manipulating and consuming attention unlike any other.  The social media are at the core of America?s ?attention economy.?  The Economist further adds that ?Social media have revolutionized this attention economy in two ways.  The first is quantitative.  New services and devices have penetrated every nook and cranny of life, sucking up more and more time.  The second is qualitative.  The new opportunity to share things with the world has made people much more active solicitors of attention, and this has fundamentally shifted the economy?s dynamics.  Interface designers, app-makers and social-media firms employ armies of designers to keep people coming back.?  ?The more people use their addictive-by-design social media, the more attention social-media companies can sell to advertisers?and the more data about the users? behavior they can collect for themselves.?  But the ?attention economy? also meets a fundamental personal need of users:  People share information because they want attention for themselves.  They want to be heard and seen, and respected.  They want their posts and tweets to be liked and spread around.  ?They pass through social-media networks like viruses?a normally pathological trait which the social-media business is set up to reward.?
  • When people use social media, they enter an ?ecosystem? in cyberspace that feeds their prejudices and fantasies.  ?When putting these media ecosystems to political purposes, various tools are useful.  Humor is one.  It spreads well; it also differentiates the in-group from the out-group; how you feel about the humor, especially if it is in questionable taste, binds you to one or the other.  The best tool, though, is outrage.  This is because it feeds on itself; the outrage of others with whom one feels fellowship encourages one?s own.  This shared outrage reinforces the fellow feeling; a lack of appropriate outrage marks you as not belonging.  The reverse is also true.  Going into the enemy camp and posting or tweeting things that cause them outrage?trolling, in other words?is a great way of getting attention.?
  • The sheer volume of usage is staggering.  For example:  More than 500,000 comments are posted on Facebook every minute.  Americans touch their smartphones more than 2,600 times a day.  Adult Americans who use Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp spend around 20 hours a month on these three services.  The population of America goes to something on Facebook about 4 million times a minute.

The social media culture is perhaps a monster that is out of control.  Amazon is changing how we buy things; Google is changing how we access information; Facebook is changing how we communicate; and Facebook, along with Instagram and Twitter, are fostering a vehicle for how we vent and emote.  As social media remake our lives, Christians need to remember Paul?s wise counsel in 1 Corinthians 6:12: ?I will not be mastered by anything.?  The final of the nine ?fruits of the Spirit? in Galatians 5:22-23 is self-control.  Both of these maxims must be the intentional focus of the believer in this age of social media.  Social media must be used wisely and intentionally as a tool, not as a controlling mechanism that dominates our lives.  As James 1:13ff details, sin begins as a thought, leads to a desire and produces an action.  It is in our thought life where the battle often is waged.  Social media constitutes a battleground for our minds.  We who know Jesus must be intentional and decisive in declaring that Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Google or anything else will not control us.  We will use these technologies as a tool, but we will not allow them to control us.

See Daniel Henninger in the Wall Street Journal (29 March 2018); and The Economist (4 November 2017), pp. 11, 19-22. PRINT PDF

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