How We Turned Social Media Into Poison

Artwork By Rantt Media’s Madison Anderson

How We Turned Social Media Into Poison

Social media morphed into something far darker than it was ever intended, and its creators are powerless or unwilling to fix it

Even if just one percent of all people are, to borrow from Scrubs’ Dr. Cox, bastard-coated bastards with bastard filling, that still leaves us with way too many toxic humans, roughly 76 million to put a number on it. That’s more than enough people to mess up your day on social media, which was never designed with adequate safeguards to keep them at bay as we discussed previously. As social media evolved, it’s become a very different beast than Silicon Valley planned. It’s far angrier, more political, more toxic, and more mentally taxing and unhealthy for far too many people, and only its users can fix it, as we were the ones who broke it in the first place.

We built social media to boost traffic to publishers, use our friends’ referrals to show more effective ads, and exchange pictures and fun moments from our lives. This was partially in naive hopes that all this would help us all get along thanks to our exposure to so many people from different cultures, partisan affiliations, and countries that we would understand their points of view. We might never agree, but we’d at least see why they think the way they do. In many cases, we saw that happen. In far too many others, aggressive use of filters created echo chambers of like-minded users with no interest in positive engagement, and no social media company has an incentive to break up the routines of users in those self-enforced bubbles. Actually, just the opposite.

The more you use social media, the more it learns about you and the more of that knowledge it can sell to advertisers. The more time you spend on it, the more chances it has to show you their ads, which they will try to fit into your timeline with as small and obscured of a disclaimer that it’s an ad as they can manage without blatantly passing it off as organic content. So if you’re rabid about your political beliefs and block anything even remotely displeasing to your worldview with prejudice, trying to reintroduce you to a healthier and more balanced news and opinion diet might backfire and cause you not to use the platform, which means you’re a lost opportunity for their advertisers.

Ironically, this lack of content policing is turning off the next generation of social media users, who aren’t exactly interested to see what their friends are up to in between racists rants from relatives and conspiracy theories that will pollute their feeds, among other reasons which we’ll need to set aside for later. It’s entirely possible that social media will morph into something a lot more private and less focused on news and other content designed to keep users from leaving by turning platforms into portals to the rest of the internet, which would be a net benefit. But the damage is already done.

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Going Insane In The Mainframe

(Warren Wong/Unsplash)

(Warren Wong/Unsplash)

Prodigious use of social media, especially across numerous platforms, was strongly linked with depression and anxiety. Our natural tendency to try and put our best foot forward in public also feeds into users feeling down about their own lives compared to everyone’s steam of carefully chosen highlights often presented as their casual, everyday comings and goings. And this isn’t just correlation. In a very ethically dubious experiment, Facebook was able to confirm that manipulating what posts appear on people’s timelines affects their mood and interactions with the site, showing causation which perfectly compliments the initial findings of social media’s possible effects.

This, of course, makes sense. If all you see are positive posts, you’ll feel more positive thanks to all the happy priming. Conversely, if your timeline is just a pit of anger, depression, and negativity, you’re not going to find much to lift your own mood and fall into the same patterns. In extreme cases, social media can even feed into or exacerbate existing depression and neuroses by creating closed off communities based around a mental health issue. Instead of giving users guidance on how to seek help, it allows them to define themselves by a condition for which they should really seek advice and therapy. And this isn’t just applicable to teenage girls on Tumblr. Social media can pour gasoline on much more serious problems and create unsavory identities around them.

One example of this is the “incel” community, a.k.a. “involuntary celibates,” which sounds like a clinical term but is actually how men who tend to often strike out with women for one reason or another label themselves. They are frequent inhabitants of the dreaded “friendzone” because they, like too many younger men, tend to overestimate their chances of getting together with an attractive female friend. Believe it or not, this isn’t a value judgment, but the result of an actual study into why men get friendzoned. None of the findings were new or Earth-shattering. It’s just that the overwhelming majority of the denizens of these communities believe that being a decent human being to any woman in the vicinity enough times entitles them to sex and trying to talk them out of this belief is as productive as skydiving with an umbrella.

But the incel community isn’t interested in learning how to get out of that dreaded friendzone, or even better yet, how not to end up there in the first place. No, instead they praise each other for not being “Chads,” their chosen pejorative for attractive, fit, socially well-adjusted men, deride people with active sex lives as intellectually stunted partiers who’ll end up amounting to nothing, and fume about being denied sex by women. One infamous post in a now-quarantined incel community on Reddit featured a user apoplectic that a young woman on a subway dared to pause scrolling her screen for a moment just to admire a picture of a shirtless male model, then tried to tie her interest to supposed female entitlement when it came to sex vs. the poster’s desperate struggle to find a willing sexual partner.

Because there are few moderating, sober voices in communities built around a common gripe, extremism can flourish unchecked. After Elliot Rodger, the 22-year-old student who went on a rampage in Santa Barbara after posting a 141-page manifesto detailing his hatred of women for rejecting his advances and a video promising “retribution” for this affront to his libido, incel communities either celebrated or excused his actions. It also didn’t help that all his musings were peppered with lingo used by incel groups and quoted others saying that women wouldn’t have sex with these men not because their behavior must’ve displayed more red flags than a Soviet military parade, but because women, in general, must be incapable of logical thought and reasoning.

And this isn’t something that faded away over the years. Just this Monday, a Canadian incel named Alek Minassian ran over ten people in a rental van and injured 13 more after praising Rodger on social media. Far from reforming or moderating themselves, these echo chambers have spent the last four years stewing in their own grudges and whipping themselves up into a frenzy with each criticism from the outside world. Worse yet, there’s plenty of crossover between incels, men’s rights groups, and the so-called “alt-right” which adds heavy dollops of conspiracy ideation about why these men got the short end of the stick and weaponizes their discontent into hate and bigotry.

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Breathing New Life Into Hate

Members of the National Socialist Movement, one of the largest neo-Nazi groups in the US, hold a swastika burning after a rally on April 21, 2018 in Draketown, Georgia (Spencer Platt — Getty Images)

Members of the National Socialist Movement, one of the largest neo-Nazi groups in the US, hold a swastika burning after a rally on April 21, 2018 in Draketown, Georgia (Spencer Platt — Getty Images)

Whereas before, such groups didn’t have much of a presence, or were hidden deep in the bowels of the internet, social media allowed them to boost their traffic and appeal to new, susceptible audiences by offering those afflicted by seemingly intractable problems something even more attractive than simple, bite-sized solutions: an excuse to wallow in self-pity and scapegoats. Forget about fixing yourself; they tell readers. You don’t have to bother with any of that. You’re great, perfect in fact. It’s all those around you getting you down that are the problem, and one day we’ll do something about them. Scores of new, eager converts to the message of do-nothingness then proceed to follow and amplify the accounts promoting new pity parties to join.

You can see the same mechanics playing out for white supremacists and neo-Nazis on social media as well. Just imagine being raised to believe that your skin color makes you superior and destined for great things solely by virtue of being white. Never mind that so-called “race science” was created by bigots to justify their own superiority and not understanding regression towards the mean. Never mind that the strongest indicators of how well you will do on an IQ test are years of formal education and household income rather than race. A lot of people want to believe they were destined for greatness and a belief system that makes the right skin color the pinnacle of achievement becomes way too attractive to pass up.

And this isn’t just a white neo-Nazi thing. There are supremacist ideologies around the world based on a similar key premise, that one’s birth to the right group entitles you to greatness. Then, when the vast majority of these people invariably fall on the middle 80% of the bell curve, comes shock and betrayal. It’s tempting to think that all racists, bigots, and supremacists are losers whose only way to become apex predators in their ecosystem is trolling anyone they see as a target by abusing social media, often using it to coordinate massive harassment campaigns, but mathematically, that can’t be the case.

Consider that a recently outed white supremacist podcaster was a young and gainfully employed teacher in Florida who was trying to indoctrinate as many of her students as possible. Like most supremacists, she was fairly average, in plain sight, but not exactly making trailblazing history. Millions of them are paper pushers in gray cubicles. Millions more are skilled tradespeople whose jobs are now competing with machinery. Very few reached the same profile as Robert Mercer, or Steve Bannon, or Marine LePen. And when they realize the fact that they’re, well, average, and competing for jobs with the supposedly less capable minorities, they’re furious and looking for someone to blame.

Just like with incel communities, they seek scapegoats and targets that must be responsible for the conspiracy against them. That all things white are being targeted by diversity programs and the Jews, because according to the web’s top neo-Nazis, everything is a Jewish conspiracy and every annoyance, from automation to women being upset about earning less than men, to a bad hail storm that damages their car must be attributed to them. They will then use social media to spread the message, and while they’re there, attacking those they hate is just a few button clicks away.

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Going Off The Rails On The Social Media Train

(Colin Rex/Unsplash)

(Colin Rex/Unsplash)

And it’s not just ever more toxic echo chambers that are devolving into darker and darker extremism that should worry us. Recent studies show that we’ve made social media the biggest, most potent disseminator of hoaxes, rumors, and conspiracy theories there is. Algorithms rewarding how quickly content is shared among users rather than the quality of the content or its source, allow hoaxers to dominate the social media news cycle, easily beating out any sort of fact checking or real news. While bots might amplify hashtags to hijack the trending lists of social media platforms, it’s us, humans, who are the best and most powerful disinformation agents in the digital world.

Likewise, the most shared emotion on social media is outrage, and as we see from the Facebook experiment, this primes users for a day of more anger and outrage, producing more viral angry content and feeding the never-ending, mentally taxing cycle of rage. This is exactly why publications that thrive on shocking their users are so successful on these platforms. Of course, this is not to say that news should be sanitized to keep us docile and positive. There are things happening around the world that deserve our outrage. But there’s a big problem when websites make millions from peddling hate clickbait with zero fact-checking or outright fabrications and dominate the public discourse.

We also shouldn’t forget about the human toll of moderating the platforms we use to keep them as free from lurid, graphic violence, child porn, and random hardcore sex clips posted by wannabe shock jocks, as possible. With AI unable to understand video and images well enough to moderate them itself, the task falls to human contractors, often in developing nations, who have to wade the sewers of social media and be exposed to the worst that humanity has to offer in real time, five days a week, ten to twelve hours a day. We seldom think or talk about them because social media companies like to avoid talking about their flesh and blood moderators or underplay their role if they have to talk about their involvement in making perplexing decisions.

By this point, it might seem that social media is the worst thing that humans created because we’ve been so focused on its negatives, and to be fair, we do have to note that it enabled many acts of charity and lived up to its potential to bring people together many times. These platforms can absolutely be used for good, it’s just that their creators seem either powerless or unwilling to step in when the bad overwhelms it, and we abuse the reach they give us. Think of social media like alcohol. In moderation and with regard to what you’re drinking, it’s perfectly fine and can even be beneficial. But drink too much and spend your day obsessing about consuming it and you’ll suffer, and just like many bartenders, the companies behind social media don’t want to get involved if you overdo it because they don’t need or want the trouble.

And this gets us to our ultimate questions. If social media, on aggregate, has made us angrier, more anxious, more depressed, and polluted our sources of information while helping toxic groups grow in number and visibility, why are we on it? What good is it doing us and how can we preserve it? There isn’t an algorithmic solution to these problems because they’re entirely human. But it may involve educating ourselves on the pitfalls of social media and how much skepticism we need to apply to what we see on it. We need to remember that just like out in the real world, there are people out there making money from trying to deceive us and who thrive and profit on our misery, and they’d like nothing more for us than to believe their conspiracy theories, wallowing with them instead of living our own lives and making our own paths.

Just learning how a scam works is the first step in defeating it, and knowing that social media wants us to really open up and give them every bit of data about us, that there are toxic humans trying to lure us to join them in their malicious causes, and professional trolls and liars who turn our attention into paydays — gives us signs to spot and avoid them. If the companies who run all these platforms won’t help us do it, we have to do it ourselves. Just like we all once learned to ignore email forwards and conspiracy mongering portals, we need to remember that yes, they do just give anybody social media accounts and websites, and that we really do need to act accordingly when we log on, knowing there will be digital monsters on the prowl because they never left, just slightly changed venues and upped their game.

Politech // Culture / Journalism / Social Media / Tech