Every day that passes by America seems more and more unrecognizable to me. When I turn on the news or read a newspaper, the country I hold dearly appears to be unraveling before my eyes. At first, I dismissed the changes to our society as part of an inevitable shift from my generation’s values and mores to that of a new generation. But over time, I had come to see current events as not just a smooth evolution into a new reality, but symptoms of an existential crisis that, if unchecked, could usher the end of our democracy.
These symptoms are not just beholden to a single party. There is the Jan 6. Insurrection and the destructive riots over George Floyd; Antifa and the Proud Boys; Cancel Culture and the misguided war over school boards, mask-wearing, and vaccines.
While our norms and values change over time, these issues fall into a much different category. One segment of the population is gripped by an irrational hypersensitivity, while another is brainwashed by misinformation and anti-democratic ideology. Both groups express anger and outrage that isn’t proportionate to the perceived offense. They are two different realities.
These realities are polar opposites, locked in constant conflict, and received an outsized amount of media attention. They are united by the social media companies that perpetuate their radicalization. We always knew social media played a nefarious role in our democracy. During the 2016 election, state actors and private companies like Russia and Cambridge Analytica were able to farm personal information and spread election misinformation without these companies lifting a finger.
Time and time again, Facebook and other companies have denied that their platforms are inherently anti-democratic, marketing themselves as apolitical tools occasionally abused by malevolent actors. However, we now know that not to be true. Weeks ago, Facebook executive Frances Haugen leaked Facebook documents to the Wall Street Journal, which outlined that the company has internally known that its algorithms have promoted divisive content that facilitates angry interactions between seemingly normal people.
I would dare say the issue is more dire than global warming. While a connection has been made by some in the mainstream media, many pundits are downplaying the severity of the problem. Just like global warming, the impact of social media companies is slow-moving and almost intangible – a problem that can be easily disregarded by most of the population. But if ignored, it presents an existential threat, and we are reaching that tipping point.
If democratic principles, science, and our shared truths fall victim to continue to fall victim to misinformation, our society as a whole will eventually be crippled when we are presented with an existential crisis. Our nation’s fractured pandemic response, for example, has made our lack of unity painfully apparent. No doubt, more large-scale disasters, wars, and pandemics are waiting just around the corner.
Seventeen prominent scientists from different disciplines have written a paper documenting the dire consequences we face globally from social media. They convincingly argue research on the effects of social media must be treated as a “crisis discipline” in the same category as global warming.
“We have built and adopted technology that alters behavior at global scales without a theory of what will happen or a coherent strategy for reducing harm,” said Joseph B. Bak-Coleman, the lead author and a post-doctoral researcher at the University of Washington’s Center for an Informed Public.
We no longer need to wait for more evidence. Facebook needs very strict government regulation including, but not limited to, breaking it up, doing away with algorithms that prioritize outrage, and the practice of blindly sharing user information. Ideally, everyday users will be able to profit off of sharing their information with the company. Users need to receive content in a less targeted, focused, and amplified manner. Not just liberal users or conservative users, but all Facebook users regardless of political ideology.
Despite his apologies and hollow assurances, it is a mistake to trust Mark Zuckerberg. Repeatedly, he has proven to be a liar that will say anything to protect his empire. Whenever I see him in front of Congress, I am reminded of tobacco executives who argued there was no proof cigarettes cause any sort of harm to humans comes straight to my mind. The algorithms Facebook uses are the moral equivalent of the
process used by tobacco companies to treat tobacco to ensure a smoker becomes more addicted. There is no difference between the two – and lawmakers from both sides of the aisle have said so.
There needs to be a louder more urgent campaign against social media companies. The same parents that howl about the “indoctrination” of their children in public schools must show the same sense of urgency for the hours they spend on internet echo chambers bombarding them with all manner of falsehoods and misinformation. In our 24/7 news cycle, Mark Zuckerberg is hoping to weather the storm – banking on the apathy and short attention span of the American public. But we cannot let this pass. Get angry. Insist on change. Don’t let this die a quiet death.
Eric Reynolds is a retired NYPD detective. He started his career as a rookie patrolman in the Bronx. After stints in the Vice Squad and Anti-Crime, he was assigned as a detective in the Central Robbery Squad. After 11 years in “The Bureau,” he retired from solving homicides in Harlem and Washington Heights. He spent a total of 20 years with the NYPD, from 1981 until 2001.