I’ve long argued in these pages that Facebook and its social media ilk, in addition to being blatant, parasitic wastes of time, exert a pernicious influence on both civic and personal discourse. It comes down to this: social media’s anarchy of undifferentiated ideas is no less a threat to democracy than the tyranny of a single idea, and as proof we have the presidency of Donald Trump, our walking, talking Twitter feed.
Now we have the thoroughly unsurprising news that, in addition to being, at best, a maddening distraction from personal and civic seriousness and at worst a global platform for mendacious speech of all sorts, Facebook has been used as a tool to collect and manipulate the political sentiments of millions of American voters. Mark Zuckerberg appears on CNN, is appropriately contrite in his bug-eyed, blank-faced way, and even allows as how regulatory intervention might be appropriate, as well might someone who has already made off with $67 billion from his part-time college project. A little late for the rest of us.
Any thinking person must assume that the Cambridge Analytica imbroglio is but the tip of a data-trolling iceberg that reaches deep into our personal lives, and across the republic. We gave up any semblance of data privacy or control of our personal information when we agreed to Facebook’s terms of service, having read not a word of them, and to those of Google, Twitter, Apple, Amazon, and all the rest. It’s the ultimate triumph of what we lawyers call a contract of adhesion, where one party presents dense, one-sided boilerplate and the other party has no ability or opportunity to negotiate it. Internet commerce begins and ends with the “Agree” button, or that box you neglected to uncheck.
So yes, delete your Facebook account, but be under no delusion that it will make a ripple in the sea of data that you’ve already agreed, by contract, belongs to someone else, to be used as they will for as long as they like. It’s far too late to put the online genie back in the bottle. All we can do now is to refuse, individually and as a society, to be ruled by it.
We give too little credence to the liberating power of simple refusal, the power to turn away, the power to ignore. But to have a meaningful effect in our civic and political lives, that power needs to be applied well beyond social media. It needs to be applied to our enslavement to smartphones and our fascination with talk radio and cable news, to our prurient interest in the backstory and motivations of the next mass-shooter or package bomber. It needs to be applied, most of all, to the hysterics emanating from Washington, and more specifically from the White House, the misdirection and calculated surprise, the ham-handed caps in the Twitter posts, the puerile posturing and sloganeering, and the news media’s ceaseless, knee-jerk reactions to it.
Bigotry comes in many forms beyond the crude, obvious bigotry of racism or sexism. Social media can enable democratic speech and brave expressions of individuality, but also exert forces of atomization and isolation that are threats to civil community, and we need to actively resist them. The very word “community” has been hijacked to refer to a virtually-connected horde of subscribers to this or that social media website. Facebook posts and Twitter feeds purvey abstracted, impersonal speech from within silos of preconception: we preach to the converted while talking past each other. How much harder it is to persuade, in person, or to seek out and give audience to opposing points of view. Yet that is what it means to live in an actual, functioning community.
In that kind of community, you put down the phone and pick up a book. You sit down over coffee or a stiff drink and have a serious discussion with someone who profoundly disagrees with you about abortion, or gay marriage, or Donald Trump, or gun control, or the prospects for the Cavs making it through the playoffs this year. You try sincerely to understand that person’s point of view, even if you can’t accept it.
In that kind of community, better still, you take a walk with someone you know who is really good at something you’ve never done or wish you could do better – writing or wrestling; sculpture or Sudoku – and ask them to share a bit of their expertise with you. You talk about something you know you both care deeply about but somehow never get around to acknowledging to one another. You might even ask someone to teach you something you don’t know and haven’t a hope of learning on your own. Short of love itself, there is nothing greater to offer or receive.
Meanwhile, just say no. Facebook and its ilk may wither as quickly as they flourished, and we’ll look back on this era with wonder and pity that so many were so easily led. But whatever the fate of social media, it’s a sideshow. The future lies not in ever more clever platforms for our narcissism, but in eliminating boundaries to truly mutual communication, and in salvaging the personal from the merely social.