Anti-social Media: How Facebook Disconnects Us and Undermines Democracy
Hardback: Oxford UP, 2018
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Reviewed by Jeff Nelson
“The problem with Facebook is Facebook.” That is the title of the introduction to Siva Vaidhyanathan’s extensive writing on the effects that social media has had on the world, on individual cultures, and on individual people. And yet, positioning Facebook as a problem rather than an aid or benefit to social interaction, personal connection, gathering around mutual interests, and political activism might be a hard sell for the millions of people who use it around the world every day. As you might imagine, Vaidyanathan is up to that task, and presents his case in methodical fashion.
The author begins by following up on his provocative introduction title. He argues that Facebook has become so ubiquitous and has made the world so dependent upon it that it has woven itself into the very fabric of not just how people stay in touch through posting family pictures and locating old friends and acquaintances, but it has determined how businesses market themselves and how politicians share their messages. People, groups, and corporations cannot conceive of ways to reach people apart from tailoring a certain portion of their efforts toward how it will be communicated on Facebook because it has become such a central piece of information-sharing.
The structure of the author’s argument is in examining several ways that Facebook has been used, exploited, or wrongfully attributed credit by people, corporations, governments, media companies, and social movements. Most chapters focus on various ways that people look to Facebook as the source of what they desire. This includes pleasure, attention, benevolence, protest, and political activism. Vaidhyanathan is fairly exhaustive in his analysis of each, balancing each chapter with anecdotes that magnify the issue and wider studies that zoom out for a bigger picture.
As one may expect from a book written about Facebook in 2018, the author devotes a fair amount of time to the 2016 United States presidential election and the influence that ads and articles shared on Facebook had around that time. While far from the only case study presented in the book, it is one of the most prominent. Vaidhyanathan uses it to examine how people used the medium to advance various forms of propaganda into people’s feeds in the form of ads, “news” articles that had just enough plausibility to seem credible, and pages that seemed to support one cause but were covers for other things entirely.
As Vaidhyanathan explores, doing all of this was quite easy for those inclined. Ads and sponsored posts do not cost much at all and can be targeted at audiences that will receive them sympathetically. If an article promoting false information appears in the feed of one who has shown through Facebook’s algorithms to want more of that sort of content, they are likely not just to believe it but to pass it on. And the most damning thing, from the author’s point of view, is that Facebook does very little to counteract or remove such possibilities.
In other words, as Vaidhyanathan says more than once, Facebook is doing what it was designed to do. As such a prominent source of where people receive and process news and information in today’s world, it was only a matter of time before people wishing to sway public opinion in certain directions would bend the site’s tools toward their own advantage.
This one example not only touches on the platform’s potential to promote propaganda. As Vaidhyanathan also spends time discussing, it also helps play into the tendency that many on Facebook have to construct social and informational silos around themselves in order to reinforce their own opinions and biases. The various options that Facebook gives to join like-minded groups, choose what kind of content to see in one’s newsfeed, and prioritize some “Friends’” posts with whom they agree over others’ contributes to users’ being able to only see things that help confirm what they already believe. Coupled with the aforementioned algorithms designed to notice and provide more of what users like, Vaidhyanathan argues that Facebook offers very little opportunity for true dialogue or growth in understanding beyond one’s own treasured viewpoints.
Vaidhyanathan also spends quite a bit of time analyzing the addictive and performative nature of Facebook. Absent the chance for sharing one’s view in the hope of initiating actual discussion, the author argues that most of what people post is actually designed for others who already agree with them. Sharing one’s opinion is more an exercise in narcissism; of watching the number of “likes” and positive feedback grow. And in most free moments, he argues, we whip out our phones to see how many more positive reinforcement we’ve received, to say nothing of the many in-app games we may choose to play. In this way, Facebook dominates our downtime, demanding a Pavlovian return to scrolling through whenever we’re not actively doing something else.
There are places in the book where Vaidhyanathan seems not to appreciate the genuine role that online community plays for many. Groups and pages may serve to reinforce siloed opinions for some, but they provide safe haven for others who feel alone in their identity for others. Facebook may be a collection of sycophantic acquaintances for some, but I and many others have forged friendships that began online and became genuine over time. Vaidhyanathan gives some cursory lip service to some of these ways that people have truly found Facebook to be helpful, but he mostly focuses on its destructive side. What some have found in terms of true community and support, others have used to spread disinformation and division for less than honorable ends, which has had real life consequences.
As Vaidhyanathan observes, these negative issues are not likely to be seriously addressed by the site’s creators due to its profitability and user loyalty. Facebook is doing what it was designed to do, which among other things is to keep supporting Facebook. As the first line of this review states, that is the root of the problem.
Jeff Nelson is a pastor, spiritual director, and writer. His latest books, both published this summer, are Wonder and Whiskey: Insights on Faith of the Music of Dave Matthews Band and Prayer in Motion: Connecting with God in Fidgety Times. He lives with his family in Uniontown, Ohio, where he serves as pastor at Grace United Church of Christ. He regularly blogs about ministry, spirituality, and pop culture at CoffeehouseContemplative.com.